‘Oldie’ subject still challenges artists

From prehistoric times to the present day, artists have returned to one subject again and again.  It has been scratched on cave walls; carved from riverbank mud; painted and drawn and sculpted in every conceivable medium, and even now the human form is still one of the most fascinating and rewarding subjects any artist, amateur or professional, can draw. 

     It’s natural to want to sketch, paint and sculpt people.  We see people every day, and their forms and actions are very familiar to us.  Throughout history artists have found that the human figure has possibilities for expression that aren’t provided by any other subject.  A quick glance through any collection of art masterpieces makes it obvious that artists have found the human figure, whether clothed or nude, one of the most intriguing subjects to tackle.

     There are several ways to depict the people.  Many artists specialize in portraits.  Portrait painting usually concentrates on realism.  The artist wants to make a portrait that is a good likeness and captures the personality and mood of the subject.  Even in stylized, caricatured or abstract portraits, you can recognize the person depicted.   

     The portrait doesn’t have to be just a picture or sculpture of someone’s head and shoulders.  It can include a partial or full-length view of the figure.  A portrait may be formal, with the subject or subjects wearing their “Sunday best”, or informal, with children dressed in play clothes and adults in casual dress.  Portraits can show the person fully clothed, draped, or nude. 

     Portraits sometimes make comments on the individual portrayed.  For example, many 1700-1800s-vintage sculptures depict famous people wearing togas.  By sculpting someone such as George Washington in a toga, the artist is comparing their wisdom and dignity to the emperors and philosophers of ancient Rome.  Portraits can also be a means of negative political comment, as when artists create pictures or sculptures of famous people in a way intended to make them look undignified or silly. 

     The human figure in art is often a symbol, standing for things that no other form or shape could convey.  An artist can create a figure that is obviously not a realistic portrait and use it to say something.  The Statue of Liberty is a good example; with a strong and dignified woman representing the idea of Liberty. 

     The statues carved by the ancient Greeks weren’t realistic copies of models.  They were idealized people invented by the artist to show his concept of perfect beauty.  It was a way to say “This is what I think the ideal human being would look like, a combination of perfect proportions, grace and rhythm.”  Because such perfection can’t be found on earth, these figures were superhuman, having the quality of gods and goddesses.  The Greeks represented the ideal world by perfecting the real things they saw around them.

     On the other hand, medieval artists weren’t after physical beauty.  They wanted to show spiritual ideals.  To the medieval artist, the physical world was a difficult and unpleasant place to live, and it was only temporary.  To these artists, Heaven was their home, and therefore their art celebrated the beauty of the soul instead of the body.  Medieval artists used human figures to show abstract concepts such as love, humility, devotion, and self-restraint.  This is why many medieval figures appear distorted, with elongated bodies and stiff, formal poses.  We look at them and realize that these people are not of this world, but of a spiritual world.

     During the Renaissance, people rediscovered the beauty of nature.  People were happy to be human, and the artists of the time wanted to show the human body realistically and at its best.  The human figure became the subject of intense scrutiny as artists examined how bones, tendons, muscles, and flesh work together.  Painters and sculptors enjoyed creating the look of rippling muscles, beautiful skin tones and texture, and the play of veins under the skin.

     Today, anything goes.  Human figures are depicted both realistically and expressionistically.  Some artists clothe their figures; others paint nudes.  Some distort the figure to express a mood or message and some concentrate on pure design, making the figure almost unrecognizable.  Others paint with absolute realism right down to the tiniest eyelash.  Some work in the middle of these two extremes. 

     Artists today have a freedom of expression that is absolutely unique in recorded history.  There are many ways to be human, and today’s art has many ways to show this. Now, when we look at art depicting the human form, we have a richer, more perceptive experience than any viewers before us.

Published by on January 2017. Filed under Art-to-Art Palette Journal, Paint Box Section. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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