I don’t know of any other artist of the period who expresses himself as clearly across the centuries. This is utterly fascinating to me.

Professor of Art History Christiane Andersson seeks to understand the historic and cultural implications of art because, she says, "Art history only makes sense if you know the context. That's where it really gets interesting."

Sometimes, the context reveals how art transgresses tradition to explore new cultural values or ways of thinking. For instance, Martin Luther's posting of the 95 Theses on a chapel door in Wittenberg, Germany, initiated an era of religious struggle -- with artists often implicated in the conflict.

"Lutherans portrayed the Catholic Church as sinful and greedy, and they poked fun at the hierarchy of the Church in works of art. The Church's censors in turn jailed the artists, publishers and printers and burned the anti-Catholic works it found," she says.

Fortunately for Andersson, the censors weren't very capable or thorough, leaving behind works that show how the Protestant-Catholic conflict was playing out in the art of the Reformation period. She is writing a book about her findings. "If the censorship had been effective," she says, "I would have nothing to study."

In a separate project, Andersson is cataloguing the drawings of Urs Graf, a Swiss Renaissance artist who also broke with convention -- though in this case, the traditions he bucks are artistic and societal rather than religious.

"Urs Graf is most famous for creating drawings that were works of art in their own right. Previously drawings usually served as rough drafts in which ideas for paintings or other art forms were developed, but in Graf's work, drawings themselves became the finished works of art," she says.

The content of his work was also innovative. "The subjects he illustrates in his drawings are very different from what his contemporaries are doing," says Andersson. "He bases a lot on popular culture, on contemporary political events and on the relationships between the sexes - he has a lot to say about that."

Ambivalence toward women, including both fascination and distrust, was a common attitude in Graf's time, but his vivid representation of his personal passions and fears was not a common practice. "What is unusual is that he expresses this so clearly in his drawings. Five hundred years later, we can read the clues and look into this man's psyche a little bit, like a therapist would. I don't know of any other artist of the period who expresses himself as clearly across the centuries. This is utterly fascinating to me."

Posted Sept. 13, 2011