A-level: A brief history of the representation of the body in Western painting

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] Artists love to portray the human body, but there’s a lot of decisions to make. When you portray the human body on a two-dimensional surface, those decisions come to the fore.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:14] Bodies exist in space, so there are various ways of representing three-dimensional forms on a two-dimensional surface.

[0:23] When you’re representing the body, there’s lots of other complicated things, like: How do you represent movement? The weight of the body? Do you? Or do you choose to represent the body in a more abstract and transcendent way?

Dr. Zucker: [0:35] One of the first great naturalistic renderings of the human body came about in the classical tradition, that is, the artwork of the ancient Greeks and the ancient Romans.

[0:45] Now, most ancient Greek painting is lost, but we do have some ancient Roman painting. A great example of that can be seen in a fresco — that is, a wall painting — of a woman and her daughter, who’s standing behind a chair.

Dr. Harris: [1:00] We think it’s her daughter. This is a very old image, so it’s hard to know exactly what’s being shown.

Dr. Zucker: [1:05] That’s true. This is more than 2,000 years old.

Dr. Harris: [1:08] Just like we see in sculpture in ancient Greece and Rome, in two-dimensional art and fresco paintings like this one, we see an interest in representing the correct proportions of the human body. An interest in representing — although a clothed figure — a sense of a nude figure that makes sense underneath that drapery.

Dr. Zucker: [1:25] We get a sense of the mass, of the volumes of the body. Remember, all of this is represented on a two-dimensional surface. The ability to create a sense of a form turning in space is quite an achievement.

Dr. Harris: [1:38] When you say turning in space, you mean light playing over the surface of a form to make it appear three-dimensional.

Dr. Zucker: [1:45] Look at the edge of the pillow that she sits on. The bottom of it has shadow. The top of it has a highlight. We get a sense of that object in space.

Dr. Harris: [1:54] The artist has created a convincing illusion on this two-dimensional surface of a three-dimensional form.

Dr. Zucker: [1:59] Look at the instrument that that woman holds. We’re seeing it at an angle, so that it looks foreshortened.

Dr. Harris: [2:05] It appears to be coming out in space toward us. By creating a foreshortened form, the artist further helps to convince us of an illusion of space.

[2:15] There’s a lot going on here, in fact, where the artist is trying to give us a sense of naturalism, of an illusion of reality. We have the foreshortened musical instrument, the foreshortened arm of the chair. The naturalism of her body. The sense of her weight as she sits on that chair.

Dr. Zucker: [2:34] And of course the child that is behind the chair so that we know that there is space. I mean, it’s a relatively shallow space. We have a wall behind the child. Nevertheless, we do see the woman in front, the chair in the middle, the girl behind that, and the wall behind her.

Dr. Harris: [2:49] Exactly. We have an illusion of space and we have an illusion of three-dimensional figures that exist within that space.

Dr. Zucker: [2:55] But throughout history, that wasn’t always the primary consideration of an artist.

Dr. Harris: [2:59] If we look at a medieval mosaic, when Europe was dominated by Christianity, by Christian thought, we see a very different approach to the human figure.

Dr. Zucker: [3:08] Here we’re looking at an apse mosaic. That is, this is made of tiny pieces of stone and glass that’s in a church called Hagia Sophia. This is huge. It’s about 16 feet tall, but it’s so much more stylized than the Roman painting. The image itself is quite symmetrical.

Dr. Harris: [3:24] By symmetry we mean that if you cut it down the center, it would be pretty much the same on both sides, and the figures are very frontal. This is a kind of view that’s not very realistic. If you walked in a room, for example, how many people would you actually see exactly frontal?

Dr. Zucker: [3:42] You would generally not see figures that have halos around their heads or gold backgrounds behind them. This is a spiritual representation.

[3:50] This is an image of the Virgin Mary and her son, Christ, and so what we’re looking at here is a heavenly representation. This is a symbolic representation, and although there is some reference to light and shadow, especially in the drapery and especially in the cushions, this is an image that is coming out of the late Roman tradition. Nevertheless, this is primarily concerned with abstracting the human body.

Dr. Harris: [4:15] And abstracting space. We can say that the artist of the ancient Roman fresco was doing everything he could to convince us of the reality of his illusion.

[4:25] Here, in the Middle Ages, the artist is doing everything he can to convince us of the unreality of his image. He’s removed it from any earthly setting. We have that gold background. The figure is elongated. The drapery describes the body a bit, but is very abstracted, and by abstracted we mean removed from reality.

Dr. Zucker: [4:48] The lengthening of that body is a way of signaling to the viewer that the figure that we’re seeing is not somebody that we would meet in our daily lives. That this is somebody who exists in the spiritual realm.

[5:00] Christians at this point in history are much less concerned with the importance of the physical, of the realm in which we live, and are much more focused on the hereafter, on the spiritual realm. Now, that changes, and if we move to the Renaissance, we see Christian art that is concerned with the here and now.

Dr. Harris: [5:18] You can see that in so much work of the Renaissance. In this beautiful painting by Giovanni Bellini, we have a spiritual image.

[5:25] This is the Madonna and the Christ Child, but in a beautiful earthly setting with a landscape behind them. The figures no longer wear those big halos indicating their divine status. Their bodies are in much more natural proportions and move much more naturally, and so we have that interest in both the natural world and the naturalism, the realism of the body.

Dr. Zucker: [5:48] Here’s an artist that is finding spirituality in the beauty of nature, in the beauty of the human body. In this way, we have an artist who has an interest in returning to that older Greek and Roman tradition.

[6:02] I’m not saying that Bellini was looking specifically at Roman wall painting, that would have been hard to see, but there was a general interest in the classical, interest in the natural world.

Dr. Harris: [6:12] That’s one of the ways that we define the Renaissance. The Renaissance as a rebirth of the culture of ancient Greece and Rome, and artists looking back to that naturalistic tradition.

Dr. Zucker: [6:21] I think it’s important to be cautious not to look at the Bellini and say that it is more successful than the medieval mosaic. These are works of art that were responding to the needs of its culture, to the interests of its culture. Both of them are spectacular representations, but very different kinds of issues are important to them.

Dr. Harris: [6:40] The artists who created the mosaic in Hagia Sophia had no interest in creating an illusion of reality. In fact, their goal was to not create the illusion of reality. We see that happen again in the 20th century with some artists. We’re looking at a Madonna and Child by a 20th century artist named Eric Gill.

Dr. Zucker: [6:57] This is a print, and it is so simplified. It is so abstracted. We can clearly see the intimacy between the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child. Very similar to the intimacy that exists in all of these images. It is stark black-and-white. It is simple line and contour, and so the artist has reduced it.

[7:14] This is a kind of economy of line that is interesting and important to artists in the 20th century, and to artists who have, in a sense, the entire sweep of history at their disposal, that can pick and choose the styles that they want to work in, and who try to create a new kind of meaning through those choices.

Dr. Harris: [7:33] Gone is the use of modeling or chiaroscuro, that movement of light to dark to create an illusion of three-dimensional form. We have no sense of atmospheric perspective like we have in the Bellini, where we have a sense of deep space in that landscape.

Dr. Zucker: [7:49] And even more abstracted than the mosaic. But this is an artist who is familiar with every image we’ve looked at.

Dr. Harris: [7:56] You could say that in the era of photography, why create reality?

Dr. Zucker: [8:00] Like every artist before him, Eric Gill is making choices and producing art that answers questions that are relevant to his culture.

Dr. Harris: [8:08] That answers the needs of the 20th century.

[8:10] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "A-level: A brief history of the representation of the body in Western painting," in Smarthistory, June 14, 2017, accessed May 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/a-brief-history-of-the-representation-of-the-body-in-western-painting-2/.