A brief history of representing the body in Western painting

A brief history of representing the body in Western painting


(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)

4 Comments

  • peroz1000 says:

    Magnificent !

  • Lia Figueirinha says:

    Obrigada pelas legendas em português, recentemente disponíveis!!!

  • Dr. Strange says:

    In this specific video it’s vital to remember that the “reality” of each artist’s portrayal is largely based in the theology of that particular place and time as well as the secular influences, such as renaissance classical revival in Bellini’s case. The mosaic from HS is not seeking to portray an everyday reality (as was mentioned in the commentary) but it is portraying a spiritual reality, one that is discerned by the eyes and mind alone but by the inner eye and heart. This kind of work is best when it becomes poetic instead of prosaic, as the Modern example is becoming. The Bellini may not have literal halos to denote the figures, as does Ball’s Modernist Madonna, but his sense of reverence for the sacred nature of the subject breathes into us the spirit of the figures. In a word, the classical examples strive for Transcendence whereas Eric Gill's (Thank you for the correction) Modernist take is, in my opinion, largely bereft of this distinguishing factor of all great spiritual art.

  • with Russia from love says:

    absolutely love these videos! very interesting!

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