Thursday, April 26, 2012

“The changing role of portraiture in the course of art history”

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The role of portraiture in art has developed over time, no longer is it only a means of recording daily occurrences, it has become an indicator of the changing world.

Many mediums such as sculpture, photography and paint and styles for example surrealism, realism, and impressionism have been used to create portraits, from the beginning of prehistoric times when portraiture was used to record happenings in day to day life. Through out ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome it was used to show people of importance as well as cultural and religious icons. During the middle ages when it was used mainly to show religious icons an scenes of battle and through the 17th, 18th, 1th, 0th and 1st centuries it developed into something not just created for the gods and societies elite, but a medium used to both capture images and express feelings brought about by poverty, war, and the lives and appearances of people in all classes and cultures anywhere in the world.

The Athenian sculptor Phidias, born in Athens in 40b.c, who directed the building of the Parthenon is perhaps best know for his statues of Zeus the king of the gods and Athena goddess of wisdom, which not only represent highly important figures in Greek mythology but also represent art and architecture in Greece during Phidias’ life as well as his role in society. Which was to provide the people of Greece with religious icons to dedicate and worship.

The statue of the Athena goddess of wisdom, protector of Athens and daughter of Zeus, which Phidias made for the Parthenon, was completed in approximately 48 BC. The original work, which no longer exists, was made of gold and ivory and measured about 1m in height. The goddess stood upright, wearing a tunic, aegis, and helmet and holding a Nike (goddess of victory) in her extended right hand and a spear in her left. A decorated shield and a serpent were by her side, all of these symbolising her position and importance in Greek religion and culture.

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The other sculpture for which Phidias is best known is his statue of Zeus, the chief deity of the Greeks, was completed about 40bc, for the Temple of Zeus at Olympia; this statue is now considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It features Zeus seated on a throne, holding a Nike in his right hand and a scepter in his left, both objects which symbolise his power and status as a dispenser of justice as well as a protector. His flesh was created from ivory and his robes of gold. The throne back rose above his head. Everything surrounding the figure was richly decorated. The Olympian Zeus was about 1m and occupied the full height of the temple.

August Sander a German photographer used film in an attempt to not only capture an image of a person but to take photographs with the intention of documenting the entire German people in his time, a time which included WW and the nazi occupation of Germany.

The photograph Arbeitsloser was taken in Koln in 18, it features a man standing on a street corner. He is the central focus of this work. The background of this black and white photograph is the unfocused street to the mans right and the building in front of which he is standing. The mans clothing and all together appearance show him to be of the lesser social class. This image shows just a small part of what life was like for some people in this period of time.

Another of Sanders photographs “Zirusleute” taken in 16 also in Koln, represents a group of circus performers gathered in front of their caravans, people of different backgrounds as well as different races. It shows not only the hairstyles and costumes of the time, but how these people lived.

Both of these images show Sanders’ role, which was to lead the viewer through the successive layers of German society as well as revealing the role that his subjects played in their society.

The most common form of portraiture is painting- Rene Magritte a surrealist artist whose work dates from 118 until 168, painted many wonderful and macabre artworks, some of which were portraits. His portraits provide the audience with an insight into the artists’ mind and subject us to his emotions.

“ The Musings of a Solitary Walker” which Magritte painted in 16, depicts a ghostly white body, floating behind a bowler hatted man who is standing with his back to the viewer beside a river. This portrait is by no means a traditional portrait. The use of dark colours in the work and the appearance of fog over the river gives a sense of morbidity and darkness. This combined with the appearance of the ghostly figure could be attributed to feelings and dreams associated with his mothers drowning suicide, when he was a young boy. In this work the first thing the viewer sees is the striking white figure, but then as they look further into the picture you notice a bridge over the river and the suggestion of trees in the background.

Magrittes‘ painting “ The Pleasure Principle (Portrait of Edward James)”, painted in 17, was based on a photograph taken by artist Man Ray. It features a man sitting behind a table, which is bare except for a stone, and in all aspects of colour, shape, texture, figurative proportion and overall appearance is completely realistic. From the mans brown suit, to the grain of the timber and the gray of the stone. Except for where Magritte has substituted the explosion of light produced by a camera flash, for the face of his model, thereby showing Magrittes mocking and demonstration of the principle of reality lying behind the picture.

Magrittes art not only provided him with an outlet for his feelings and subconscious thought but as means with which to make people analyse and explore both his artworks and themselves.

Through out the course of art history portraiture has taken of many forms and has been used for many reasons to record, to express, and to confront only being a few. It is an art form which if found in every culture and can allow both the artist and the audience express themselves and to give insight into feelings and emotions as well as different periods in time.

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