CT&D #4. Context in Visual Arts

In terms of visual arts, the word “context” is best described as the personal and social circumstances surrounding the making, viewing and interpreting of a work of art. In other words, context can refer to the varied connections of an artistic world represented in a work to a larger world of the work’s time and place. With that 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 created 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 physical nature of the human anatomy. Despite differences, the Greeks had furthered an Egyptian art practice and due to its cultural 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.

Moving onward, a second example of context takes a look at the Romans blending Egyptian and Greek artistic styles into an even more unique idea. This idea would lead into 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 envisioned Christianity (which grew and became the empire’s main region) as a significant subject to sculpt figures from, that of which added more of a feeling of being drawn into their presence through representing a setting or a theme, which in this sense is thereby an evolution of the Greeks having to just personify a figure (with only emphasis on character being important, not where the character is located per se).

Furthermore relating to this concept, whereas the Greeks depicted human figures in a set of stances, the Romans evolved on this by showing variable emotion through gestures and more pronounced movements (like having figures carry objects such as weaponry) to convey realism and dynamic settings. This is a far cry from the Egyptians’ way of portraying figures as their efforts can be seen more as rigid and stiff by contrast. However it shouldn’t go without saying that given the context of what was already established in both Egypt and Greece, the Romans after them were able to draw from prior history for influence in crafting what would become their famous artwork pieces across the their empire.

One final example of context concerns artwork of figure forms during the Renaissance era, a mere thousand of years after the fall of the Roman Empire. During this time period, new ideas and thoughts came about, among them being humanist and perspective. Coupled with the reintroduction of Christian art and figure making, a blend of old and new customs would begin to take form. And since the Renaissance marked a rebirth in societal thought and ideas, it was even more fitting that the people living through this period were open in looking toward the past for inspiration. This inspiration would be reflected greatly in some of the art pieces of this period such as Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s David which borrows heavily from Egypt in capturing figure form, Greece in depicting the human body as anatomically realistic, Rome in evoking 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 people in that period appreciated past art principles and simply continued the legacy through then-modern means. The period after the Renaissance evoked different 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 artistic overtones in places of religious ones.

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