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A brief history of representing the body in Western painting

Artists use different techniques to portray the human body. Ancient Greeks and Romans used naturalistic renderings, creating a sense of three-dimensional forms on a two-dimensional surface. During the Middle Ages, artists abstracted the human body for spiritual representations. The Renaissance saw a return to naturalism, while the 20th Century brought further abstraction. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Quinn McLeish
    @ Dr. Harris points out "In the age of photography, why create reality?" Photography is often an artform in itself, but has it been a factor in the decline of naturalism in modern art?
    (18 votes)
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    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Миленa
      Given that photography was prominent when Impressionism and later Expressionism, Fauvism, and Cubism flourished, probably. Impressionism was actually inspired by photography because the artists wanted to paint a quick "impression" of a scene, like a photograph of an emotion.
      (27 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Charles Reese
    The image from Hagia Sophia that is used to represent abstracted two-dimensional representations of the body is in fact rather advanced by medieval standards. I am surprised they did not choose a flatter, more iconic image to make the comparison. This one even includes a three dimensional pedestal and bench with a fair amount of linear perspective.

    It's educational for me to see that such works existed in this period, but I think it confuses someone who is just learning to distinguish between naturalistic and abstract styles.
    (22 votes)
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  • hopper jumping style avatar for user evvia
    In the fresco at , how did the artist obtain the gold leaf effect as part of the mosaic? Is there a layer of gold leaf underneath the glass tile?
    (7 votes)
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  • winston baby style avatar for user Liotun Dahazrahazyeh
    So art is an expression of the people and time period in was created in.
    (7 votes)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user David León
    At Why most ancient Greek painting is lost?
    (3 votes)
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    • leafers seed style avatar for user Tassos Athanassopoulos
      While the previous answer is correct, the greater part of what is lost can be attributed to the destruction-mania that escorted the imposition of the new religion of Christianity in the Greek territory. Starting by imposing itself over the ancient Greek religion, and building churches over all ancient Greek temples, and other sacred places, they went on by vanishing everything that documented a Greek form of liberal expression like the famous ancient Greek dialogues of Plato and other philosophers (while keeping copies of them in monasteries), as well as destroying pieces of art, be it a painting, a sculpture, you name it. The accusation was that they were too liberal, funny, or prompted for a happy and carefree life, while a christian should be devoted to a sad life, remembering that Christ died to rescue us! A parallel can be traced in Uberto Eco's book and film "The name of the Rose". The fact remains that it was not just humans that were persecuted for believing in an ancient religion and way of life, but also, any other similar manifestation pointing to such a way of living too!
      (14 votes)
  • male robot hal style avatar for user Sergei Shneider
    Was Renaissance art anti-religious? Perhaps trying to humanize the divine figures with goal of dispelling the 'myths'?

    Also, re: photography i remember reading Susan Sontag's book and she mentions how photography at first was seen as a threat to painting, only to actually benefit it, free it up from any obligations to record, and turn it into essentially a pure art. Interesting photography then went into a similar path as you describe in one of the previous videos where at first photographers were considered craftsmen, and had to fight to be accepted as an art form.
    (5 votes)
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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user samyiching
    At , there is a faint circle around the woman's head. Why is that?
    (4 votes)
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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Matthew DeWard
    Did the frontal depiction of the mosaic of the Virgin Mary have anything to do with making the subjects submissive? By that I mean, was it positioned frontally so that it would make her look more mightier than those looking upon her?
    (2 votes)
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    • leaf green style avatar for user Allie P
      The iconography of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary) and that of Christ is meant to make them appear much larger than life. If you were to see an icon of both the Theotokos and Christ in a crowd, the two largest figures would be the Mother and Son. This is done to draw the attention and focus of the viewer to the two most important figures, that of God, and of the most blessed of mankind.
      As the other person who answered has said, it is not to make us fear her. It is simply to draw our attention to the magnificence of the two figures before us.
      (4 votes)
  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Greg Sherman
    How do we know that the style of illustration used in the Hagia Sophia meant the things you said it meant (real vs. unreal, holy, etc. ) rather than the limitations of the artist chosen to create the work? I would assume that many of these, contracts, were awarded politically rather than by talent, so it may have gone to a well connected artist from a prestigious family rather than to one that could realistically depict a figure.
    (3 votes)
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  • male robot donald style avatar for user spike9109
    If we were trying to identify the time period in which the Wall Painting with Seated Woman Playing a Kithara just by looking at it... would it be misleading or misinformed to classify it as a work done during the ancient times (which it was) simply because the illusion of perspective is a little bit off? For example, the back leg of the chair should be shorter than the front leg of the chair. Is noticing details like this a good way to try and guess what time period the art was done in?
    (1 vote)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user drszucker
      There was excellent linear perspective in the ancient world. The problem is that what has survived isn't necessarily first rate. One can see linear perspective that is pretty much perfect in, for example, the House of Augustus on the Palatine Hill in Rome. So its not really correct to to identify something as ancient because its a bit off. Though one could say that most surviving perspective from the ancient world is off, so long as you acknowledge the important though rare exceptions.
      (4 votes)

Video transcript

(jazz piano) - [Voiceover] Artists love to portray the human body, but there's a lot of decisions to make, and when you portray the human body on a two-dimensional surface, those decisions come to the fore. - [Voiceover] Bodies exist in space, and so there are various ways of representing three-dimensional forms on a two-dimensional surface, and when you're representing the body, there's lots of other complicated things like how do you represent movement, the weight of the body, and do you? Or do you choose to represent the body in a more abstract and transcendent way? - [Voiceover] One of the first great naturalistic renderings of the human body came about in the classical tradition, that is, the art work of the ancient Greeks and the ancient Romans. 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. - [Voiceover] We think is her daughter, and this is a very old image, so it's hard to know exactly what's being shown. - [Voiceover] That's true. This is more than 2,000 years old. - [Voiceover] So, 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, and interest in representing, although a clothed figure, a sense of a nude figure that makes sense underneath that drapery. - [Voiceover] Well, we get a sense for the mass, of the volumes, of the body, and remember, all of this is represented on a two-dimensional surface, so the ability to create a sense of a form turning in space is quite an achievement. - [Voiceover] And when you say turning in space, you mean light playing over the surface of a form to make it appear three-dimensional. - [Voiceover] Well, look at the edge of the pillow that she sits on. The bottom of it has shadow, the top of it has a highlight, and so we get a sense of that object in space. - [Voiceover] So the artist has created a convincing illusion on this two-dimensional surface of a three-dimensional form. - [Voiceover] Look at the instrument that that woman holds. We're seeing it at an angle so that it looks foreshortened. - [Voiceover] It appears to be coming out in space toward us, and by creating a foreshortened form, the artist further helps to convince us of an illusion of space. 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. - [Voiceover] And, of course, the child that is behind the chair so that we know that there is space. 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. - [Voiceover] Exactly. We have an illusion of space and we have an illusion of three-dimensional figures that exist within that space. - [Voiceover] But throughout history, that wasn't always the primary consideration of an artist. - [Voiceover] 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. - [Voiceover] 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. - [Voiceover] 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? - [Voiceover] And you would generally not see figures that have halos around their heads or gold backgrounds behind them. This is a spiritual representation. This is an image of the Virgin Mary and her son, Christ. So what we're looking at here is a heavenly representation. This is a symbolic representation. 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. - [Voiceover] And abstracting space, and so we can say that the artists of the ancient Roman fresco was doing everything he could to convince us of the reality of his illusion. Here, in the Middle Ages, the artist is doing everything he can to convince us of the unreality of his image. He has 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. By abstracted, we mean removed from reality. - [Voiceover] So 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. 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. If we move to the Renaissance, we see Christian art that is concerned with the here and now. - [Voiceover] And see that in so much work of the Renaissance. In this beautiful painting by Giovanni Bellini, we have a spiritual image, 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. So we have that interest in both the natural world and the naturalism, the realism, of the body. - [Voiceover] So here's an artist that is finding kind of 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. 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. - [Voiceover] And 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. - [Voiceover] But 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. - [Voiceover] 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. - [Voiceover] 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, but it is stark black and white. It is simple line and contour. The artist has reduced it. 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. - [Voiceover] So 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. - [Voiceover] And even more abstracted than the mosaic, but this is an artist who is familiar with every image we've looked at. - [Voiceover] And you could say that in the era of photography, why create reality? - [Voiceover] So like every artist before him, Eric Gill is making choices and producing art that answers questions that are relevant to his culture. - [Voiceover] That answers the needs of the 20th Century. (jazz piano)