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Analyzing a Work of Art


Gerard Bowles
©10/9/98

 


In this short outline I offer questions that can be used to analyze a work of art. This paper has a relationship with my paper "Viewing Art: Factors of Perception" in which I discuss the view of art in general. In this paper I discuss analyzing a singular work or art, and in a more intense manner. I do suggest reading "Viewing Art" before reading this paper.

Art is analyzed in some of the same ways we analyze a written communication. These are both communication vehicles, and some of the same principles apply. However, art is a more complex vehicle than written works, and often more difficult because education and exposure are not as intense and common in today's culture. This is changing as multimedia communication technology rapidly expands in our lives, and we are not prepared for this change.

Primary points in analyzing a work of art:

 

  • What is the theme? Can you state it in a sentence or two? For example, is it the artist, the style of art, a subject or patron, commentary on events or society?

  • Context - What is the context of the theme in time and events of the work of art? How does this relate to the culture that produced it? And, how does this affect the communication of the work?

  • What is the stylistic period classification of the work? Style can be different than the chronological context.

  • Who or what are the primary subject/s or objects?

  • Who or what are the subordinate subject/s or objects?

  • How do the subordinate subject/s support the primary subject/s

  • What is the atmosphere of the settings surrounding the subjects?

  • Is there a storyteller in the work or, is that left entirely up to the viewer?

  • What objects are symbolic; of what?

  • Do you see symbolic use of art elements including lines, forms, colors? And how do these relate to the above?

  • What elements of art are employed? Examples: line, shape, form, space, color, balance, etc.

  • What is the significance of the size and dimensions of the work of art on the communication; if any?

  • What is the point of view of the viewer, and how does this relate to the way the work communicates??

  • Where does the Western right-reading path take us, and why?

  • What does the title mean, and how does it relate to the work of art?

  • What art techniques and medium or media are employed, and how do they relate to the theme?

  • What is the surface treatment, and how does that relate to the visual communication?



A Short Analysis of Art for History - Not Art History

I found this little analysis, "Images of the New World," authored by Saul Cornell, Associate Professor, American History, Department of History, Ohio State University. I include it here because it might be useful for a short historical but, not art history analysis.

Analyzing Art
  • Content- what is being shown?

  • Style- was a common art form?

  • Context- how can we relate this art to the culture that produced it?

  • Does the object tell us more about the artist, the style of art, the patron or the larger society?


Glossary of art terms used in this paper:

 

content - What a work of art is about; its subject matter. Content should not be confused with form (a work's physical characteristics) or context (a work's environment-- time, place, audience, etc.)...

context - The varied circumstances in which a work of art is (or was) produced and interpreted. There are three arenas to these circumstances, each of them highly complex. The first pertains to the artist: attitudes, beliefs, interests, values, intentions and purposes, education and training, and biography (including psychology). The second is the setting in which the work was produced: the apparent function of the work (to adorn, beautify, express, illustrate, mediate, persuade, record, redefine reality, or redefine art), religious and philosophical convictions, sociopolitical and economic structures, and even climate and geography. Third is the field of the work's reception and interpretation: the traditions it is intended to serve, the mind-set it adheres to (ritualistic, perceptual, rational, and emotive), and, perhaps most importantly, the color of the lenses through which the work is being scrutinized-- i.e., the interpretive mode (artistic biography, psychological approaches, political criticism, feminism, cultural history, intellectual history, formalism, structuralism, semiotics, hermeneutics, post-structuralism and deconstruction, reception theory, concepts of periodicity [stylistic pendulum swinging], and other chronological and contextual considerations. Context is much more than the matter of the artist's circumstances alone.

media - The plural form of medium. Also, may refer to mass media. Also see mixed-media.

medium - The material or technique used by an artist to produce a work of art. It may also refer to the vehicle or solvent with which powdered pigments are mixed to make paint of the proper consistency. The plural form is media.

period - An interval of time characterized by the prevalence of a specified culture, ideology, or technology, or regarded as a distinct phase in the development of the work of an artist, or a style or movement.

style - An artist's characteristic manner of expression. Also, works of art by different artists may have certain features in common. Such works are said to have a group style. Some examples of group styles are Impressionism, Expressionism, and Surrealism.

symbol - A form, image or subject representing a meaning other than the one with which it is usually associated. Jan van Eyck (Dutch, died 1441) included several symbols in his painting of The Arnolfini Marriage (London). Albrecht D¸rer (German, 1471-1528) frequently employed symbols too. His woodcut titled Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse contains symbolism concerning the social, political, religious and economic changes brought by the "Black Death" or bubonic plague. Hieronymus Bosch (Flemish, 1450-1516) worked at a time when symbols constituted a basic visual language. Although contemporary scholars don't always agree on interpretations of his paintings, the list below suggests possible meanings for some of the symbols found in such paintings as The Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1510-1515, wooden triptych, (206 x 386 cm), Prado Museum, Madrid.

texture - An element of art which refers to the surface quality or "feel" of an object, its smoothness, roughness, softness, etc. Textures may be actual or simulated. Actual textures can be felt with the fingers, while simulated textures are suggested by the way the artist has painted certain areas of a picture. Other resources concerned with texture:

Definitions are from Artlex Dictionary of Visual Art (http://www.artlex.com/)