Humans. I’m one. You’re one (probably). We are all unique, and incredibly complex. As a result, we all differ in how we comprehend other human-beings; and we equally differ in how we are perceived and depicted by others. This is an instrumental fact that underpins all art: we all have different ways of seeing life, and, therefore, of seeing the art that is a product of that. In other blog posts, we have touched upon this concept of perception. Many of us view art in the same way that the 15th century, Italian philosopher, Leon Battista Alberti, viewed it: art should be a window into real life. This is the idea that a work of art should be photographically realistic; perfectly depicting a person (in this case), as we see them in front of us. However, in life, we rarely only comprehend people by staring at the anatomical components, that make up their superficial form. Instead, we perceive each other in an infinite number of ways – we focus on different features, different emotions, ideas, and memories, depending on who we are looking at.
Perception may begin in the eye, but it snowballs, shifts and culminates in all sorts of different places after that. So, an artist could, perhaps, be understood as a kind of translator. They may see a person – a life model, someone they know intimately, or maybe a stranger – and lay that complex perception down in paint (or any other medium) in a way that expresses what they experience, when looking at them. Whilst, sometimes they may paint a person’s likeness – other times, they may be painting something that bubbles under that immediate surface. Like we’ve said – we’re complicated! But it’s incredibly fascinating (we think) to delve into why different artists evoke humanity in such different ways.
Figure painting in art-history.
When did a image of humanity first appear? This is an impossibly difficult question, with a very, very vague answer. The reoccuring certainty throughout these blogs is that nothing is certain, especially in history, and even more especially, in art. With that in mind, one of the earliest recorded depictions of a human-being, was probably (how vague are we!) in the Upper Paleolithic cave painting (which was from about 50,000 years ago) Rhinoceros,
Wounded Man, and Bison, found in the Lascaux Cave in France. If you look this representation up, you’ll see that it would be difficult to call this ‘realistic’. The ‘wounded man’ has been depicted as a small series of geometric shapes. As a result, many cast it aside as simply a bad depiction of a human-being: ‘primitive’, ‘elementary’, and ‘crude’, are all ways it has been described. These assertions bring us back to the idea that representations in art, need to be realistic, photographic, Alberti-esque windows into life – in order to make them ‘good’ art (whatever that is). However, this perspective can be very limiting. If we limit our appreciation of art, simply to the things that meticulously copy from life, we write off huge expanses of history, geography, philosophy, theory, and medium! And so, whilst we may not like everything (or anything), it can be really interesting to try and unpick different modes of representation, to see all the different ways in which humans – whether it’s now, or 10,000 years ago – comprehend each other.
To do so, we want to start by looking at a handful of figure-focused paintings, from the canon of Western art history, to consider differing uses of, and approaches to, the human form.
For many centuries, the High Renaissance – a short period within the 15th and 16th centuries in Italy, that was particularly saturated with artistic ‘genius’ – was considered to be the pinnacle of figure painting. Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael (artists, not ninja turtles) had mastered the art (literally) of perfectly composing human forms, calculating perspective, and rendering flesh so visceral; that it seems impossible to match, even
five-hundred years on. In Renaissance Italy, Christianity was absolutely integral to everyday life: it was the foundation of daily routine, law, government, ethics, birth, and death – to name but a fraction of it. Yet, a vast percentage of the population were illiterate. How could the narratives, morals and laws of Christianity be understood by a person, who could not read the Bible; or even comprehend the preachings of the church, which were in Latin? So, religious painting had a profoundly important job. It needed to encapsulate and express complex religious narratives; it needed to be accessible to all people, regardless of age or education; and it needed to tantalise, and convince the viewer of its own reality, and significance. Thus, the human form needed to be rendered so life-like, that the viewer would be absolutely convinced of its legitimacy. Or would, at least, be tantalized by it. So, as an example, when Leonardo was commissioned to paint the Virgin Mary, Elizabeth, Christ, and John the Baptist, in his 1480s work The Virgin of The Rocks, he had to focus on Alberti’s idea of a window into life. These religious figures needed to be intensely tangible – clear and vivid – whilst still carrying an ethereal luste that marked them as sacred. To many, this so called ‘perfection’ is the ideal in art. When in reality, it is just one, subjective form of depiction, that served a very specific purpose.
Figures of Revolution.
Fast forward to the first half of the 19th century, in France, where socio-political instability tore through Paris; war and revolution caused catastrophic damage; and art was torn between serving the crown or the emerging republic. Eugene Delacroix needed his figures to play an entirely different role than those of Leonardo. In his 1830 work Liberty Leading the People, Delacroix brings together stark, torturous reality; hope for a liberated future; and classical allegory, to evoke the longed for ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ – all of which he achieved in this painting, through the careful creation and arrangement of human figures. There was no need for these figures to be ‘perfect’, like the Virgin Mary. Rather, they were rendered as dark and painterly, flecked with the tricolour (red, white, and blue) of the French flag; with blood, brains and pubic hair spilling out onto the streets of the French capital (ew…) This raw rendering of humanity served to rally support for the revolution, and highlight the horrors inflicted upon the masses by the elite powers (which triggered its censorship by the French government) – a conviction that required the human form to be raw, rugged, and powerful. Far from the sacred and still beauty of Leonardo’s Christian cast.
The Musical Figure.
To discuss every single historical way in which humanity has been depicted in paint, would take about 10,000,000 years. So before we introduce you to a few of our own artists, we want to finish up our art history run-down, with a look at how the recognizably-human figure, was beginning to be rethought, at the end of the 19th century – which would eventually lead to the deconstruction of naturalism in the work of painters, such as Picasso and Matisse.
The work of James McNeill Whistler (of whom, Glasgow’s Hunterian Art Gallery have the largest permanent collection of paintings) is a brilliant example of jazzing up the representation of the human form. This is because, when he saw other humans, he did not simply paint the objective truth of what they actually looked like. He saw each human being as a musical composition. In 1885, he stated that when an artist is painting, they should look at ‘nature’ (whether this be human beings, contemporary life, events – anything!), but rather than copying it, they should select the best parts of it, and rearrange those ‘like a musician arranges his notes’, into painted symphonies, that represent rather than copy. So, in his 1862 work Symphony in White No. 1: The White Girl, he brings together an artificial arrangement of colour, texture, and form, to create a ‘symphony’ of beauty. The ‘Girl’ could just as well be a sunset, an arrangement of flowers, a landscape – she is medium through which to explore painting the concept of beauty.
The notion of representing concepts through depicting human beings, or more abstractly evoking the essence of a person, rather than copying their likeness, would drive 20th century abstraction (with Picasso or Matisse being famous examples of this). Which, in turn, further widened the plethora of different ways in which humans have depicted each other in art. This absolutely explains the vast breadth of ways that our artists represent humanity, in their works.
We hope this has given you some context to the art of figure painting. In Part II of ‘The Human Form’ we will be showcasing our very own Patrick Palmer, Eleanor Carlingford and Lily Macrae, to examine each of their approaches to painting humanity.