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Human Form Through The History Of Art

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 2014 words Published: 1st May 2017

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Spanning across centuries of art movements, the human form has been depicted and developed in numerous ways. It can be seen that it has been illustrated according to specific ideologies of an era. Also, quite a significant point is looking in the past at the human form and the large amount of times that artists choose to depict it and how they have rendered it. One can look at two periods, the past -‘where have we been?’ and the present – ‘where are we now?’ according to the cultural, ideology and time influences on form. In this essay I firstly looked at how the human body has been portrayed, and secondly, the medium used in which to render the painting/ sculpture.

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Egyptian artists painted in a very simple, 2D manner, using only a set number of colours to depict their form of a human being. All of their appendages, such as hands and feet, are portrayed as flat and front on. Their eyes also appear to be a frontal view instead of the conventional side on view of the eye when looking at the face from the side angle. (Figure 1) These images are perfect examples of an art form that has been influenced by culture and ideology. The Egyptians lived relatively simple lives yet they were a very precision driven race, for example the pyramids. This is reflected in their art. Barry Kemp extensively researched the Egyptian ideologies and culture. In his book called Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilisation, he argues that ideologies have become one of the “shaping processes of the modern times”. Kemp stated that it would be appropriate to use the word ‘ideology’ when referring to the Egyptians’ vision and use of “symbolic terms” in their artwork. The Egyptians believed that it was of central importance to keep the “reflection of a divine order” within their lives. (Kemp, 2006: 61) The use of simplistic form and symbols depict their idea of a true representation of a human’s form and lifestyle at that time.


The Greeks worked in a variety of styles and mediums. From sculpture, to painting, to prints as seen below (Fig 2 & 3) a similar thread runs through of the Greek ideology. Their appearance is analogous in style to Egyptian art. Both representing 2D forms with very simple, reserved use of colour and no 3D qualities at all. These two examples represent prime facets to the violent Greek lifestyle of war and quarrel forever ending in gruesome death.

Although when researching Greek art, it is impossible not to talk about sculpture. The Greeks were known for their sculpture and architecture. The central subject matter in Greek art is the human form and it is displayed in many ways. Static sculpture, such as the example below (Fig 4) (Home School, n.d.) represents the very early form of Greek sculpture. There is no movement in the artwork what so ever; the only difference / variety is the fact that the one leg is put forward.

The Greek lifestyle and ideologies at this point in history was vital in the exploration of the human form. The sculptors started to differentiate their works by adding texture and movement.

Or Mobile Sculptures:

The Greeks believed in resolving issues with violence, as mentioned above. Therefore this was an ideology of their time. Their art – no matter how static it appeared – always carried connotations of viciousness and passion. This particular sculpture (Fig 5) is a demonstration of pure strength and domination of the male form in the Greek ideology. Every muscle is emphasized and their facial expressions tell a story of their own.


In the Baroque movement there is a complete change to what has already been looked at. Art had evolved into more realistic renderings and the majority of work was completed in paint.

The word ‘Baroque’ has the original meaning of ‘irregular, contorted, grotesque’ (Janson, 1982: 483). Which when speaking about the movement as a whole, is a largely out-dated explanation. The ‘new style’ actually originated in Rome during the late 1500’s.

In Rubens’ painting, The Union of Earth and Water (Fig 6), it is evident that many, many hours of painting were put in to produce this work. The forms have a soft, gentle shape. The female’s bodies in this era were always described in the paintings as full and plump but not over-weight in any sense. In more modern terms their bodies would be considered to be shapely. The Ideal woman/ bodily form in this era – in terms of the ideology of form – was seen as more ‘romantic’ in observation. It was not seen as in the more modern times of a slender, fit looking woman – ideologies of the ‘perfect’ woman of our time – this is how their ‘perfect’ woman appeared.

The conventional way of portraying a human body with the face forward or to the side was challenged and explored by placing a form with his back to the observer. This could indicate deeper connotations of social changes or standards. With the male being the one to turn away, it could indicate his confidence in his own authority.


Known as one of the first movements to be in the ‘Modern World’ of universal art movements, Neo-Classicism brought forth new dimensions of the portrayal of the human body. Similarly to Baroque, the figures were rendered mainly in paint, with a more realistic emphasis. However there is one noticeable change in the human form when moving onto the Neo-Classicism era. It is visible that the form has been revised more in terms of muscle shape and the actual realistic shape of the body. For example, the men posed in the painting have very muscular bodies and are standing in a very blatant, upright position; which differs greatly to the style in which the artists portrayed their forms in the previous movement. Every muscle is defined and emphasized; every proportion is correct; nothing is removed from the composition and their forms are depicted in a very realistic manner. Looking also at the women in the background, it is apparent too that their shape and form is much more refined and calculated. This movement is described as “a new revival of classical antiquity” (or ancient) (Janson, 1982: 557).

This movement spanned over a near century in length. A good example to illustrate this movement is David’s painting, “The Oath of Horatti”. (Fig 7)

Impressionism is the next period towards the present. The term ‘Impression’ means (in painting) to make a mark with paint to give the idea (impression) of something. It does not mean that the observer can see the exact object – it is a suggestion using colour through emotion.

In the case of the artwork below (Fig , lighter shades of the same colour are almost dotted on to the canvas to give the effect of dappled shade. The impression of shade is evident.

Scenes from ‘the world of entertainment’ (Janson, 1982: 608) such as dancing halls, side café’s, concerts and the theatre were the main subject choice of the impressionist painters.

To look at a good example of form and its depiction in this movement, “The Tub” by the impressionist artist, Degas (Fig 10), is a great instance. A woman is bathing in a round bath tub. As the subject in the painting, her body utilizes the majority of the space.

The brush strokes are quite harsh and quick, in a way that just by looking at the image they are clearly seen. This in turn causes a ‘hazy’, or out of focus effect to the painting. Even through this however, the observer can clearly see her form. Her shoulder bone is distinct causing a line of shadow on her back. Her ribs can too be seen from the way that she is bent over – they are easily exposed under a person’s skin. The harshness of the brush strokes in a way emphasizes her form. The use of light and dark (chiaroscuro) has the same effect.

Although, when compared to David’s “Oath of Horatti” (Fig 7), there is a great difference in the way in which the artist painted. The Neo-Classicist work expresses static definition, where as in “The Tub” (Fig 10) more of an impression of the emotion of the painter (and subject) are conveyed – through the rough brushstrokes and colour use.

Moving on from paintings and routine sculptures comes the reasonably broad movement of Modernism/ 20th Century painting and sculpture. There are thousands of examples of a modernistic artwork. It has been debated whether or not this was a turning point in how and what artists considered art. Research in this topic shows a definite turning point in one artists’ work. Anthony Gormley is his name. The image below is of one of his most famous works, a human being lying on the ground in the foetal position on his/her back. Constructed in small, rectangular, metal blocks put together in such a way as to ‘take on’ / imply the human form. In a way the figure looks almost lost and out of place, on what looks like a sidewalk.

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The fascinating fete about Gormley’s work is that even though it is highly unrealistic, it is too perfectly realistic at the same time – in that you can see all the essential details of human form. This of course refers to a more simplistic approach of the interpretation of the body, which in turn could speak about how the form was perceived and/or appreciated in this time.

At this stage the depiction of the human form was already moving at a steady pace towards unrealistic simplicity. The movement of Cubism followed shortly after Modernism and materials being used, in fact, completely differed to that of most modernistic works. Picasso, being one of the most famous artists of all history for his cubist works, painted the human form countless times. This particular painting of his is a picture-perfect example of a cubist artwork. The woman is barely capable of being observed properly. The true form in this case as in most artworks of this movement has been lost and only shape (2D) is left behind. The completely angular rendering of the undeveloped figure again hints towards the use of more and more simplicity and basic form in artworks.

Most of Picasso’s cubist works were painted around 1908 – 1910 (Janson, 1982). This was therefore a few short years before World War 1 began in the summer of 1914 (Janson, 1982).

If one looks at the history, there was much tension and social upheaval evident. This was a turning point that changed artist’s views and opinions – which only continued changing due to World War 2.

Lastly, the final movement being discussed is the Pop Art movement.

A lot of Pop Art pieces were done by the method of silk-screening. This places layers of different colour onto the page to obtain a bright, cartoon-like image. Nowadays you can see them in almost all comic strips for example. It is clear that the human form appears entirely two dimensional for the majority of the time (Fig 14). In (Fig 13) however a rare occasion of tonal value is evident. The form also only appears by itself, with no detailed background, focusing all of the observer’s attention on the subject.

Subsequently, the depiction of the human body has developed and changed. This was due to the ever changing influence of specific ideologies current in each time period. By looking through all the movements mentioned above, there is evidence to state that even though there has been development – artworks have gone back to their original state. There has been a loop of progress, yet we still arrive at the same conclusion. In early times before Christ, artworks and sculpture consisted of only necessary form. Now, in the present day, there is the same result.


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