Before the portrayal of the human body can be critiqued, you must understand the artist’s culture. As man evolved over centuries, his views of the body also transformed. Our tour definitely showed the drastic changes in different cultures’ art. Each culture and era presents very distinct characteristics. Through time and experimentation, we have expressed our views of the human body clearly with our art.
Egyptians were the first people to make a large impact on the world of art. Egyptians needed art for their religious beliefs more than decoration or self-gratification. The most important aspect of Egyptian life is the ka, the part of the human spirit that lives on after death. The ka needed a physical place to occupy or it would disappear. Most of the important men of Egypt paid to have their body carved out of stone. That was were the spirit would live after the man dies. They used stone because it was the strongest material they could find. Longevity was very important. The bodies are always idealized and clothed. Figures are very rigid, close-fisted, and are built on a vertical axis to show that the person is grand or intimidating. Most of the figures were seen in the same: profile of the legs, frontal view of the torso, and profile of the head. Like most civilizations, Egyptians put a lot of faith in gods. The sky god Horus, a bird, is found in a great amount of Egyptian art. Little recognition was ever given to the artists. The emphasis was on the patron.
Early Greek art was greatly influenced by the Egyptians. Geography permitted both cultures to exchange their talents. The beginning of Greek art is marked by the Geometric phase. The most common art during the Geometric phase was vase painting. After the vase was formed but before it was painted, the artist applied a slip (dark pigment) to outside. Then the vase was fired and the artist would incise his decorations into the hard shell. It was important to incise humans into the fired slip and not paint with slip. The people in the pictures needed light colored skin, which was the color beneath the slip, because Greeks wanted to make their art as realistic as possible. Much like Egyptian art, the Greeks idealized the bodies of the people in their works.
As the Archaic Period evolved, Greek sculptures were almost identical to the Egyptians’. Unlike
Egyptians, the Greeks refined their techniques. Greeks used marble to construct their sculptures. It was considered more valuable and beautiful than any material available. They softened the lines of the body. Greek sculptors slowly perfected every contour in the human figure. Greek people viewed the human body as something beautiful and so they depicted nude men. Women were eventually nude but only when there was a reason, they needed to be bathing or something where they would be naked. They people that are sculpted are always young and their bodies are still idealized. The Greeks invented contrapposto, the relaxed natural stance of a sculpture. A figure that is standing in contrapposto becomes a sculpture in the round, meaning that the emphasis is not only on a frontal view but also from all angles.
The Hellenistic Period emerged as the Romans began to produce some of the finest art in history. This new revolutionary style was incredible. Figures weren’t confined to the unnatural or boring positions they had for centuries. All body parts were in perfect proportion. These statues came alive as their limbs reached out into space. Vacant stares evolved into human emotions, which were easily recognized on their faces. I think this renaissance portrayed the way people were thinking. They were exploring philosophy, religion, and politics. This was a time for rebirth.
Christian art was introduced during the middle of the second century. In many cases the only difference between Christian art and Hellenistic art is the religious subject matter. After a slow start the Christians introduced something new, the mosaic. Mosaics became a favorite medium for decorating churches. Man was viewed in religious scenes due to the spread of Christianity.
Byzantine and medieval art was very representative. The artists’ ability to produce lifelike figures had regressed. The emphasis was not on man anymore. Their art was made to glorify God.
The fifteenth century marked the arrival of the Renaissance. Artists have finally recaptured the amazing detail and realism that the Greeks and Romans perfected. Artists pushed the limits with new exciting mediums and bright colors. Filippo Brunelleschi, allowed artists to determine the relative size of each figure by inventing the vanishing point perspective. With that tool it was possible to put everything in perfect proportion. Humans were not always idealized as they were in earlier centuries. Many elderly people are found in the paintings.
Neoclassical paintings commonly showed contemporary garments and scenes. History painting became very popular. A larger transition was made when color was used to set a mood or express inner feelings. Nothing like this had ever been considered. Man viewed his experiences as important stepping stones. To assure that experiences aren’t forgotten they were preserved in artworks.
Humans are often used in modern art. Although the people may appear very large or important, they are usually just vehicles used to convey a message to the audience. In Segal’s Red Light, we saw a man walking alone in front of n old truck. The man was not colored at all. He seemed to be sauntering across a street at night. A feeling of depression or sadness surrounds the man. The human is not important but the emotion is. Most of the modern art uses the human body to portray a feeling or emotion. Rarely will you find any new art that displays a humans because they extraordinary.
Romantic landscaping is incredible. The idea of most of these pieces is to show how insignificant man is. Before humans were always the center of attention but now here they are almost trivial. Artists like Thomas Cole show us what is pure and simple. The paintings use a lot of color to create very natural, unaffected scenes. It seems that we come upon these landscapes almost by accident. They depict ideal settings that are unscathed by the injustices of the world. In my opinion, the beauty of these works is unsurpassed by any other art.
Through the ages each culture had its own interpretation of what the human body means. I have briefly explained a few of the broadest views of the human body. In order to explain one in great detail would take volumes. I thoroughly enjoyed Mona’s tour of the museum and I hope to see her there again.