The Great Ideas that Changed Art, An Illustrated Talk with Michael Bird

Radical, illuminating and richly illustrated exploration of the History of Art.


Dispensing with conventional historical categories and -isms, Michael argues that as human understanding of physics, of light, and of materials altered, and as the technology to manipulate them developed, so did the art that we produced. Invention & discovery - not intellectualism & commentary - were the drivers of change.

Renaissance, Baroque, Fauvism, Abstract Expressionism – these are the kinds of terms we habitually use to discuss art. But most of them were coined by critics and art historians. Artists, on the other hand, tend to see things very differently.

What were the great ideas and developments – those extraordinary gear-changes - that have, over the centuries, driven artists to experiment and discover new ways of working, new techniques for seeing and recording the world?

Michael Bird charts a new route through 40,000 years of art, from the cave paintings of Chauvet to the Internet age. He explores ideas and innovations that have shaped and changed the way art is made.

For this talk, Michael focuses on some of the overarching themes in his new book, 100 Ideas that Changed Art. He looks at the way artists have used light – reflected, refracted, projected and artificially generated – and the technologies they have harnessed, including stained glass, mirrors and electricity. He shows how new materials and new uses of traditional materials, from oil paint and canvas to welding and plastics, have fundamentally influenced the forms art takes. It’s a story that encompasses radical changes and surprising continuities – not to mention the art itself, which has changed the way we see things in its turn.


Michael Bird

Michael is an author, art historian and radio broadcaster. He has written widely on modern British art, in particular, including monographs on Sandra Blow and Bryan Wynter, and The St Ives Artists: A Biography of Place and Time. His next book, due out in 2014, is on the sculptor Lynn Chadwick. Michael regularly presents features on BBC radio, most recently Lanyon’s Last Flight, about the artist Peter Lanyon’s fatal passion for gliding, and The Flower Fields on the archaeology and actuality of flower-growing in Cornwall. He has also written exhibition scripts for major museum projects, including the award-winning redevelopment of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter. He is a visiting lecturer at University College Falmouth.

2013Martin Keeley