The multifaceted and complex intricacies that are woven throughout the centuries in art are unrealistic to attempt in this format. Therefore, because the focus for the majority of the focus throughout history has been on the humanistic form the concentration will be on that.
Art was the first written language and to study the history of art is to study the history of civilizations and humankind. The Paleolithic cave paintings in France, when viewed in the modern western perspective can only be speculated at as to the intent and/or purpose of the original artisans. Perhaps the paintings of animals were the focal point of a religious ceremony or ritual, surveyed before the hunt, to bring success or perhaps part of a celebration or documentation after the successful hunt. It appears that art from the earliest history into the Renaissance focuses around religious ceremonies of some type.
Plato believed art to be a form of communication on a metaphysical level. The modern western view of art appears to support his supposition in this regard. However, his student Aristotle felt that art was a reflection and invocation derived from the scientific forms of nature. Clearly, his ideology does not fit into the Ancient World’s artistic representations. As art evolves throughout history it intersects with Aristotle’s philosophy although not for many centuries will we begin to see his naturalistic/scientific theory evolve.
Human beings are born, live, and held prisoners of their bodies. Since the beginning of time, the human form has been represented in pictorial depictions. Representation of animals and nature appear to only be depicted in ways to enhance the human race; either through religious, mystical, hunting charms, or whatever the themes all center around humans.
The form does take on specific significance when viewed in the context of history and culture. The Venus of Willendorf is the earliest officially dated sculpture know to the modern western world yet she is far different from the Aegeans’ Cycladic figures known as the Minoan age. Yet both figurines the full-figured Willendorf and the slender Cycladic figure are interpreted by modern scholars to represent their cultures mythological belief in aiding the deities if their time period in reproduction. Without the scientific knowledge of later generations, it is assumed that these figures were representations to invoke fertility.
Mesopotamia art was centered in what are now Iran and Iraq. The developing cultures (Assyrians, Sumerians, Babylonians, etc) in the area, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which is sometimes called the “Cradle of Civilization” or the “Fertile Crescent”, are credited with the invention of cuneiform writing which is shown to us in the Stele (law code) of Hamarabi. Within these cultures, rulers often conferred with the religious leaders and religion was an important part of their society.
The unique character of Sumerian art is exemplified by a group of votive statues from the Abu Temple, at Tell Asmar. The identities of these statues are unclear. However, it is an educated theory that they served Abu, God of vegetation, and they represent priests, and worshipers. There is no indication that these figures were intended to represent a naturalistic scheme. It is important to note that the symbolization is that of the human form and representative of some form of authoritarian hierarchy. Tracking the human form and its relationship to art, history, and culture as the human figure evolves through the centuries as artists perfect their talents is an effective way to establish how art has evolved throughout all culture and eras.
The architecture form the ancient world throughout history also reflects the cultures religious beliefs and in most civilizations was designed with humankind in mind. The erection of the citadels during the Mesopotamia historical era is built to provide protection of the temples and palaces. They are decorated in relief and personify power, religious themes, and the cultural beliefs about the human form and its relationship to the universe.
The Human-Headed winged lion from Nimrud is the perfect example. The tremendous stone slabs are carved into enormous human-headed winged beasts, a bull, and a lion. The lion wears a horned cap indicating divine status, while the animal’s body is endowed with a device unique to the Mesopotamia art style. It has five legs, so that from the front it appears motionless. However, from the side view it implies the figure is walking. The impression of intimidation and formability radiates from the citadel.
Egyptian art radiates the directive of continuity, a seamless stretch of time that reaches back to infinity, yet forward into history all at once. The Sphinx serves much the same purpose for the Egyptians as the citadel depictions did for the Mesopotamian era. It symbolizes stability, intimidation, protection, order, and endurance. It was built about 2530 B.C.E. The Sphinx faces the sun and is massive in height. It has the body of a reclining lion and the head of a man, most likely the Pharaoh Chefren.
In the Egyptian culture, the Pharaoh was God and the body and soul were one so it was essential to preserve the body. A Pharaoh might spend all of his lifetime constructing a temple, or pyramid, so that his remains, along with those of his family, would remain intact for throughout time. Hieroglyphics were the written language. Although an exaggeration Plato stated that Egyptian art had remained the same for ten thousand years. There are many consistencies throughout Egyptian art that have remained stable and virtually unchanged.
Aristotle’s scientific and math theories are represented in much of the Egyptian art and architecture. The pyramids and sculptures used scientific knowledge and mathematical skill, portraying logical balance and symmetry. The Seated Scribe is a typical representation of the Egyptian sculpture. The sculpture is indicative of reverence to the perfection of the human form showing intelligence and reverence at once.
Egyptian painting reveals the same clear visual motifs and illustrative skills that the architecture and sculptures do. Their love of exact detail, meticulous depiction, and biological precision are constants throughout their history. The use of the hierarchical scale to enhance important figures and representing men in a dark red complexion and women in a lighter yellowish coloration attests to their dedication to true representation.
The artistic culture of the Aegean parallels in time those of Egypt and the Mesopotamia eras about 3000 B.C.E. The Cycladic, Minoan, and the Mycenaean cultures are the three most prominent in the Grecian area. Historians know little about the Cycladic civilization except the nude female figure mentioned earlier believed to have been a fertility symbol of some type and the Harp Player. The Harp Player is carved in marble and so life like that the viewer is left with the impression that he is actually playing his instrument. The artist lengthened the harpist arms so that they curve into the harp itself. The arms are subtly muscular. The piece is as highly stylized and the essence of shape is clear as with the Cycladic female figurines.
The Minoan culture living in Crete were skilled painters. Numerous frescos have survived. The cheerful, happy go lucky, and humorousness of society is represented in them. The Toreador Fresco features a bull thought to be a special animal to them. The human figures in the fresco are animated and performing various feats and activities that lend the impression of game and fun. The composition is well-balanced and beautifully graceful curves. The Snake Goddess is thought to be a priestess or queen of the Minoans. The little terra cotta sculpture has wiggling snakes in her hands leading some historians to speculate on the possibility of some form of religious statue, because of the belief that the Minoans’ worshiped a female deity. Like the Mycenaeans’ they built temples and palaces. However the Mycenaeans flourished in about 1600 to 1100 B.C.E. and are noted for their elaborate tombs.
The Mycenaeans’ were master goldsmiths and used gold for jewelry, masks, utensils, weapons, and decoration for architectural structures. The Rhton drinking cup is beautifully constructed in the shape of a lion’s head contrasting smooth planar sections and extremely detailed nose and mane.
The Indian subcontinent called the Indus Valley burgeoned around 2700 –1500 B.C.E. Relatively few artworks have been unearthed from this civilization so little is known of them. The torso from Harappa is made of stone and is only about four inches high but it gives an insight into the civilization that so little is known about. The well formed muscular composition and naturalistic form brings the piece alive. The protruding belly has been thought to represent the yogi philosophy showing “breath is life.” The high glossy polished exterior resembles the texture of warm skin. In contrast to the Indus Valley China developed earlier than 2000 B.C.E. the exact date is unknown by historians.
China’s Shang and Zhou artists are best known for their sophistication and skill with bronze casting for sculptures and ritual vessels. The Tiger from the ninth century B.C.E., the relief is a series of ornate geometric designs. The sculpture is perfectly balanced, highly stylized, and intricately formed.
Meso-America was another early culture from which some of the oldest art originates. The Olmec civilization had its beginnings about 1500 B.C.E. The Olmec were farmers, widely dispersed through the region but their society had absolute religious and political concentrations, prominently San Lorenzo and La Venta. The two sites harbored a dozen huge heads carved from basalt. The enormous heads are eight feet tall and weigh approximately ten tons apiece. The heads have broad flat noses, heavy lips, hooded eyes and they all have different head coverings that look like some kind of a headdress with distinct designs on each of them. The Olmec also worked in ceramics. Several examples of the figure called “baby” have been found made out of the ceramics. The baby figures are almost life-size. They are chubby infants sucking on their fingers. There is no explanation for what they were intended to represent although several theories abound the real intent remains a mystery.
The discovery of Greek/Roman artifacts in the late 1800’s became an inspiration for art and architecture of the 19th and 20th centuries. Therefore, the Greek/Roman cultures are extremely important in their relationship to our world today. We continue to see the unfolding of what they accomplished and wallow in their knowledge of architecture, sculpture, drama, and sports. Their similarities in architecture, art, religion are virtually interchangeable in many aspects as the Romans copied much of the Greeks’ culture. Some historians believe inferiority. The Roman culture appears to be a continuation of Greek society. Their religion included multiple gods with Zeus as their leader. Pottery from this historic era depicts stories of the culture, which created it with figures either painted in red on a black background named Red Figure Ware, or Black figures painted on a red background.
The Greek’s interest in the human figure and the need to perfect it pervades all of their artistic work. The Kouros are a series of sculptures that resemble humans but are actually suposed to represent youthful boyish Gods. Beauty and the ideal perfect body for them were the equivalent of the divine soul. The Kouros figures continue to develop and look more life like through the years. The hips flesh out, legs and arms are given animation, the muscle begin to be more fine tuned and less crude. The Contrapasso figure suggests movement and the false smile of previous art works are replaced with natural and relaxed expressions. By the last known period referenced as the Hellenistic period the Greeks were well on their way to perfecting their artistic compositions in architecture, painting, and sculpture.
Roman’s obvious delight in the Greeks artistic talent is reflected in the complete duplication of many of their masterpieces and replicating the architectural structures. The Greek’s used a great deal of bronze for there art work however the Roman copies are mostly in marbles. The Romans encountered the problem of supporting their copies once sculpted that the Greeks using bronze did not encounter. The Romans came to excel at the life like portrait busts. Fides and Concordia are carved so perfectly the spectator can actually identify with the bust as though it was living breathing humans. The relief in the architecture is exquisitely and majestically done in the Column of Trojan. The column is made up of two thousand five hundred human figures and other animals and pictorial senses creating a wondrous continuous narrative piece that if about one hundred and fifteen feet tall. The Roman Coluseum is one of the most commonly recognizable architectural feats the Romans erected. The Coliseum sports three tiers of columns everyone different styles the lowest level are made in the Doric style, the middle in the Ionic style, and the third are the elaborate Corinthian style.
During the early Middle Ages, people began to group into small city-states or kingdoms. Christianity spread throughout the Europe while while Islam (Muslims), which began in Mecca, spread throughout Asia and Northern Africa. Both of these proselytizing religions clashed in the Crusades when the Muslims pushed into Southern Spain and Eastern Europe. The current city of Istanbul, located in the isthmus of land between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, was originally named Byzantium, renamed for the Christian leader King Constantine, Constantinople, and finally became Istanbul when it was taken by the Muslims. Christian art of the era ordinarily has little perception of depth, in both sculpture and painting with two-dimensional holy Christian figures having. Often the figures were also viewed from the side with subject size being determined more by theme than by spatial relationship within the art. Another thing to keep in mind when looking at the Middle Ages is that most of the population could not read, that churches, and art in the churches guided the people in worship. Painting, sculpture and stained glass were visual documentation that all people could understand in communicating the stories of the early Christain Church. Church and state were essentially under the same control and only clergy and royal families could read and owned books. The invention of printing during the Renaissance would put books into the hands of the middle class.
Narcissistic self-worship continues throughout western art and culture. Historians consider medieval Europe a deviation, as the realist form was replaced with a standardized, stylized one. Fundamentally, there was not much difference from Classical art, the image was still human and the image of God’s only the method of portrayal was different. The medieval images reflected societal culture of the day, which was less rational than reason based as were the Greek/Romans.
The end of the Middle Ages sometimes referred to as the High Middle ages was broken into two specific styles. The Romanesque which was from about 1050 to 1200 A.D.E. Romanesque sculptures, paintings, and architecture was modeled after the Greek and Romans. The style was symmetrical and well balanced typical classic appearance. The Gothic is the second style. The movement began in France from about 1200 to the fifth century A.D.E. Artworks of this time have a linear, graceful, elegant quality in their sculpture, architecture, and paintings. It was more naturalistic than the Romanesque artwork
The renaissance was the first period in Western history to give a specific name to them. Death, with the Black Plague and Crusades, and the corruption of both church and state during the Middle Ages brought on the desire for knowledge which lead to a rebirth of society in the Renaissance Era. During the Renaissance, the governmental structure of the smaller kingdoms grew in magnitude and potency. Investigation and opposition for the influence of encountered acreage funded political holdings as the world expanded along with the information accumulation. Furthermore typical of the Renaissance was growth in knowledge of music, literature, math, science, art, and discoveries of classical history. Important dates for this era are as follow: 1378 Great Schism between rival popes create the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches; 1517 – Martin Luther posts his thesis on the Wittenberg Cathedral door which begins the Reformation and Protestantism.
Art in Northern Europe abandon the realm of the church during the Reformation Protestants and discarded the church icons focusing on genre that dealt with the common settings/themes. Subject matter while the art and architecture in Southern Europe becomes more ostentatious and icons flourish.
Classical antiquity abounds in artistic compositions during the Renaissance. The political and religious strife has become apparent as religious art gives way to more naturalistic genres. Artists draw from the myths of the Greek and Roman eras, landscapes, and portrait painting is done along with religious art. However, the form and aliveness of the subject matter into tangible expression is a noted difference. Continuous narrative themes surfaced and depth and light were utilized in new and exciting ways. Donatello’s St. Mark sculpture is so life like it looks like it could walk right off the cathedral wall and Giotto’s The Lamenation in fresco show psychological and emotional reactions that have the same effect. His use of dimension and depth was a precursor for future arts to follow. Giotto’s themes mirrored Plato’s theories of art while Leonardo de Vinci began Using Aristotle’s in the form of geometric and mathematical calculations in his art works.
Baroque art differs from that of the Renaissance in various significant aspects. Renaissance art exemplified calm and reason and Baroque was violent and full of emotion and energy. Greater color contrast, more vivid bright colors, light and dark brings about a complexity not seen in the simplistic Renaissance artwork. The leading interpreter in this era was Bernini. His theatrical styles of grand gestures bring an innovative look at the evolution of the human form from the ancient world’s crude compositions to believability. In fact, his subject is in ecstasy in his marble, gilt, and bronze statue of St. Teresa in ecstasy.
Rococo an eighteen-century style, originating in reaction to the grandeur and massiveness of the Baroque era employed refined, elegant, and highly decorative forms. Although an extenuation of its preceding period Rococo is smaller in scale and color schemes are softer. Because the concepts of linear perspective and other technical skills had been discovered during the Renaissance artist could paint and sculpt very realistically, some of them started to paint very idealistic themes. Typically, these romantic pieces of art exemplify park like settings in a most wonderful and fictional manner.
As we enter the modern world we see art fragment or branch out into various schools of thought such as Neo-Classicism a continuation from the technically precise technology of the Renaissance, Impressionism, Abstract, Modern, Post modern. etc. New inventions or technology have a great affect on the way that artists think and emotions became important to the person creating art.
Neo-Classicism is a European style of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The perfectionism of the Greek and Romans in representing the perfect body is evident in La Grande Odalisque; an oil on canvas painting by Jean Augusta Dominique Ingres. This era’s intent was to reproduce earlier classical ideologies as authentically as possible using the evolved techniques to perfect the works of art. In reaction to the Neo-classical movement, Romanticism arose. The focus was on the emotional over the perfection of reason and spontaneous expression was highly prized. The stress on drama, turbulent emotions, and imagery in motion was a direct outcome of the revolution in France forty years earlier. Liberty Leading the People is filled with all of them. The sense of blurred motion is created flickering lights and confusion replicated the societal emotions of the time.
Realism was the artists’ reaction to the two previous styles again mimicking the shift in the societal culture. Realism stood for what the eye could actually see. Works of myths, imagination, beauty, and idolized subject matter were rejected as false. Their concerns were rooted in the present.
Impressionism was a term first used by a journalist ridiculing a landscape by Monet. Basically he had it correct in that this group of artists had a common desire to capture the moment and the immediacy of visual impressions or spontaneity. Prime examples of this desire are depicted by Claude Monet and the way he wanted to capture Rouen Cathedral in different light and weather
Two discoveries that affected the thinking of the Impressionists were the invention of photography and the opening of trade with the orient. Photography, which was invented in 1825 and became a constant by the 1850s, had the ability to capture the moment and freeze time rendered portrait painting almost unnecessary as a way to capture the subject for eternity. Vanity and narcissism had a hay-day with photography. Oriental prints used genre themes and incorporated composition techniques that attracted the attention of the impressionistic artists.
With the quality and quantity of photographic images and printing the common person could own and display images at a reasonable cost. During the 20th century artists began to look for way to be more expressive, sometimes to the point of reaction. For the artist emotion is everything and the interpretation is left to the viewer, many times with different reactions from different people. Art became a colorless topic with numerous questions and the leading inquiry was “Is it Art?”
The Piazza San Marco, an oil on linen painting by Renoir is a series of blurred images and the human form is lost in the smudges. Even clearer images such, as La Lecture by Morisot where the human form of a young girl can be distinguished is still blurred and unclear. It is as if the movement wanted to wipe out humanity or blend it into the universal surroundings.
Expressionism, the artistic style that the artist seeks to display not reality, but emotions and responses. Typically, the art uses distortion, exaggeration, primitivism, and fantasy to evoke a response from the viewer. In 1911, a new group of German Expressionists opens the way towards abstraction with it experimentation and originality. It is Wassily Kandinsky, who is most often credited with painting the first Abstract picture, in 1910. Abstraction distorts the human form and makes it almost unascertainable.
Cubism as can be seen in the George Braque painting of Picasso, to the left, the cubistic style demands that the pictorial elements be influenced by the intersecting of transparent cubes and cones emphasizing the two-dimensional surface of the picture plane. Cubism rejects the traditional techniques of perspective learned in the Renaissance Era and many times depicts numerous sides in the same view simultaneously. Artists, such as Pablo Picasso, often began painting in the realistic or impressionistic style, but would spend part of their life exploring the techniques of cubism or abstraction.
Because the rules of perspective had been historically learned and studied, artists such as the Dutch graphic artist, M.C. Escher, became most recognized for his spatial illusions of impossible situations and repeating geometric patterns where the illusion of depth was adjusted. Escher was a man studied and greatly appreciated by mathematicians and scientists because of his mathematically complex structures that require a “second look”.
In simplicifation, close up, or minimizing art, the artist is getting rid of the entrapment of enumeration to give the observer a new and many times neglected view of common objects. The close up technique used in the works of Georgia O’Keef many times is taken almost to the point of abstraction, but makes us aware of the loveliness in the parts of the whole flower, which was one of her favorite themes. Artists, such as, Andy Warhol gave us a new look at every day objects through repetition and Piet Mondrian or Paul Klee make us look again at basic colors and shapes.
Non-Representational artist Jackson Pollock was painting abstractly with the drip and splash method in 1947. Instead of using the traditional easel he affixed his canvas to the floor or the wall and poured and dripped his paint from a can, manipulating it with sticks, trowels or knives and adding mixture of foreign matter. This method painting was supposed to result in a direct expression of the unconscious moods of the artist. Surrealism was a means of reuniting conscious and unconscious experience so completely that the world of dream and fantasy would be joined to the everyday rational world.
Historically, while the method of depicting the human form has changed, the image has remained virtually constant as Plato said about Egyptian art for thousands of years. The healthy, trim, muscular form that represents the ideal period of the era. There have been a few moments in history, such as the artistic works of Renoir and Rubens when a bloated figure was desirable. The evolution of the human form has been to perfect techniques to bring it to life not alter conceptions about the type of body artists have traditionally used to immortalize humanity.
America’s Smithsonian. USA: Smithsonian, 1996
Debeli, Dawn “Bulging Through History.” Direct Art. Spring/Summer 2000: 75-80. vol. 3
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Gilbert, Rita. Living With Art. 1995 New York: McGraw, 1998. 345-491 ed 5th.
Williams, Natale. “Art History.” Internet: 1999. 1-8. http://www.best.com/~natalew/art.html. (June 16, 2000)
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