Unit B1: The Human Figure

Introduction to units B1-5

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In this section of the course, we will examine different types of subject matter. Most of the analytical tools we'll use have already been discussed; it's a question now of bringing them together to try and make see how they can be applied. At the start of each unit, I've listed the concepts from the previous units which will be most useful.

I should offer a word of caution at this stage. By breaking up the subject matter into these topics, I'm certainly not suggesting that all paintings fit into these categories. In fact, one of the most interesting developments of modern art is that it has often challenged strict categorisation; and even before then, artists frequently experimented with clear genre divisions. The categories I suggest here, then, are as much a useful tool to help us get used to analysing art, as they are clear-cut divisions between types of work of art.

Two further points are worth making before we move into the next part of the course. The first is a general point about the notion of style. A painting's style can be analysed in many different ways, and it is not the purpose of this course to provide an overview of different artistic styles. But one key distinction we should make is between representational and abstract works. Representational works also called naturalistic or figurative, are those where recognisable objects are portrayed as we would expect to find them in real life. On the other hand, in abstract works, also called non-representational or non-figurative, the imitation of nature is abandoned and objects, on occasion, cannot be easily identified. Space, form, colour and content are sometimes manipulated, exaggerated, distorted or disintegrated, and objects are often simplified. In the case of total abstraction, the viewer finds that it is impossible to draw any definite conclusion about the subject matter: the painting is not "a picture of" something, but we are invited to engage with the shapes, colour and lines of the painting in their own right. This was the case in the Kandinsky example we considered in Unit 5.

Finally, in the following units we touch upon questions of the function of paintings. Again, it is not the aim of this course to discuss the various roles paintings have played in different societies, but you need to keep in mind , if only in a general way, the intended uses of paintings. These uses, whether religious, political, social, private or public, condition the artist's choice of palette, materials, composition and subject matter, as do the patron and the context in which the painting would ultimately be viewed. It is always worth asking yourselves some basic questions about this. Why has the painting been made? What specifically in the painting makes us think that it has that particular function (look at the composition, the colour, the form, the subject matter)? For whom has the painting been created? Where would the painting have originally been placed?

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© Matthew Treherne, School of Languages, Cultures and Societies, University of Leeds, LS2 9JT.


This resource was created with the help of a University of Leeds Faculty of Arts Enterprise Knowledge Transfer Grant.

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  1. Introduction to units B1-5
  2. Unit B1 - The Human Figure