CT&D #4. Context in Visual Arts

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In terms of visual arts, the word “context”  is defined as the personal and social circumstances surrounding the making, viewing and interpreting of a work of art. In other words, context refers to the varied connections of a work of art to a larger world of its time and place. With that being said, there are a few examples of how context can affect the meaning of a work of art.

For example, the Ancient Greeks have practiced the art form of forging figures of both humans and deities, much like the early Egyptians before them. However, what differentiates between the two civilizations in terms of the actual presentation of figure forms is that the Egyptians made them as a sign of respect (especially for pharaohs whom were considered to be related to the gods) whereas the Greeks wanted to show modesty and the nature of the human anatomy. Despite the differences, the Greeks had evolved an Egyptian art practice and due to its proximity (regarding both time period and location), there is no doubt that context influenced the Greeks in developing their art as an identity of its own style.

Going onward, a second example of context takes a look at the Romans blending both Egyptian and Greek artistic styles into an even more unique idea. This idea would lead to the sculpturing of multiple complex figures (with main emphasis on religion, namely Christianity) in a manner that would encompass artwork on pedestals, walls and even monumental buildings. In essence, the Romans visualized Christian figures and added more of a feeling of being drawn into their presence by having a setting or a theme incorporated which in this sense, is an evolution of the Greeks having to just personify a figure (with only emphasis on character being important).

Furthermore, relating to this concept, whereas the Greeks depicted human figures in a set of stances, the Romans evolved on this by showing emotional gestures and more pronounced movements (alongside carrying objects such as weaponry) to convey figures in a more realistic and dynamic setting. This is a far cry from the Egyptians’ way of portraying figures and can be seen as more rigid and stiff by comparison. However it doesn’t go without saying that given the context of what was already established in both Egypt and Greece, the Romans after them have had historical basis to drawn from to eventually craft their famous artwork showcase across the Roman Empire.

One final example concerns the artwork of figure forms during the Renaissance era, a mere thousand of years after the fall of the Romans. Within this new time period, new ideas and thoughts came about, among them which were humanist and perspective. Coupled with the reintroduction of Christian themes and figure making, a blend of old and new customs began to take form. As the Renaissance marked a rebirth in societal thought and ideas, it was even more fitting that the people in then were open to look to the past for inspiration. This inspiration would be reflected greatly in some of the art pieces of this period such as Bernini’s David which borrows heavily from Egypt in capturing figure form, Greece in depicting the human body as anatomically comparable, Rome in having a dynamic feel of movement and finally the Renaissance in fusing these elements together.

Although there are more examples, Renaissance art in general is marked by the interpreting of how the people in that period appreciated past art principles and simply continued the legacy by modern means. The period after the Renaissance evoked more context in the artwork produced subsequently since the historical events here cause the Protestant Reformation where the events of such directly affect the shift to more spiritual and moral definitions instead of religious ones.

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