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L.A. Art History Lessons on Twitter, in Emoji Form

Getty's emoji art history on its Twitter feed
Getty's emoji art history on its Twitter feed

A somewhat conservative institution like the Getty Museum isn't alway known for its sense of humor. And Richard Meier's modernist castle on the hill can be intimidating. So it comes as a pleasant surprise to see the Getty jumping on one of the more amusing Internet memes to pop up in the last, oh, 72 hours.

According to art blog Hyperallergic, what started as a simple Tumblr post evolved into the Twitter hashtag #emojiarthistory. Using emoji, the simple picture characters that have exploded in popularity in text, instant messages and tweets, art nerds have been re-telling art history through Twitter.

Chris Burden's Shoot in emoji
Chris Burden's Shoot in emoji

Take, for example, Chris Burden's infamous 1971 performance art piece, Shoot. Los Angeles-based Burden, who often explored the limits of physical endurance, was shot in his left arm by an assistant from a distance of five meters. Reduced to emoji icons, it's just a man and a gun. What it lacks in visceral impact, it makes up for in simplicity.

Christian Marclay's The Clock
Christian Marclay's The Clock

LACMA's relatively recent acquisition, Christian Marclay's 24-hour real-time film montage The Clock, is also represented. Yet the succession of clocks is stymied by Twitter's character limit -- there are only 17 clocks, when 24 would feel more appropriate.

Ed Ruscha's Standard Oil
Ed Ruscha's Standard Oil

And of course, perhaps L.A.'s most famous living artist, Ed Ruscha, has been re-interpreted via emoji. His iconic Standard Oil paintings and silkscreens elevated the banal to the divine. Fortunately, emoji icons include red gas station pumps that echo the ones in his work, even if the tweets are a bit more linear than the energetic diagonal thrust of the original source material.

The Getty also put its own spin on the meme. "We noticed most of these were modern and contemporary artists, so we wanted to take it up a notch and do Old Masters," says Maria Gilbert, senior editor and writer for collections and information access for the museum, who also runs its Twitter account. "It was something fun people were talking about, and it was a challenge."

Gilbert uses the basic emoji icons to make them as accessible to as many people as possible. "We wanted to show what we could do with the tools at hand," explains Gilbert. Jan Brueghel the Elder's portrait of Noah's Ark includes an almost encyclopedic rendering of all the emoji animals available, plus rain and waves. Still lifes like Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder's Flower Still Life fare especially well (see photo at the beginning of this post). Less lucky? Van Gogh's Irises, perhaps the most famous painting in the museum's collection. "There are no blue irises," says Gilbert.

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