The Physicality of an Artwork Is a Product of Its Time and Place

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“The physicality of an artwork is a product of its time and place. ” Discuss this statement in relation to one example from this assessment task, 2 artworks from modernism and two contemporary examples you have studied. Throughout time, the representation of a particular subject matter in art has changed to encompass the values of the time and place or challenge them through art. An artist is influenced by society’s ideologies’ and thus either represent these ideologies’ or challenge them within their artwork as well as being influenced by the events of that time.

Through the works ‘Mosaic of Emperor Justinian and his Court’, ‘Olympia’ by Edouard Manet, ‘Le Demoiselles d’Avignon’ by Pablo Picasso, performance artist Orlan and ‘Overstepping’ by Julie Rrap, the physicality of an artwork (the way in which it structurally appears) will be explored by the influenced of time and place. ‘Mosaic of Emperor Justinian and his Court’, (547 AD) is a 6th century mosaic in San Vitale, Ravenna. This mosaic artist is unknown, however during the time the artist was unimportant considered to be a paid workman doing a job.

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This mosaic (as the title suggests) depicts the Emperor of the time (Justinian) with his court including Archbishop Maximian (on his left), his officials, the priests and his guard. It was designed to act as religious and political propaganda, an artwork showing the power and majesty of the Emperor as well as adding to the prestige of the church itself. This was due to the great influence of the church during the time Emperor Constantine in 313 AD issued an edict of tolerance of all religions.

This meant that the previously persecuted Christians could come out of hiding and there was a great revival of art with religious subject or undertones. This artwork was created during Byzantine art, a movement based on Christianity which is influenced by Eastern practices (both style and materials) hence the use of mosaics. The appearance of the artwork was designed to be decorative instead of realistic thus the two dimensional appearance of the figures. They have however they have been placed in order from most important in the foreground (the Emperor) to least important in he background (the guards) due to the strict hierarchical structure under which the Roman society was built on. The symbols used in the painting is also affect by the time as during the ancient times, royalty alone wore the colour purple (the colour the Emperor is depicted in). Similarly royalty was seen to have a certain holy divinity and thus a halo is depicted around the Emperors head. During the 6th century, the church and the political leader of the time (the Emperor) were the most influential within the country and thus artworks were mostly commissioned by them.

Due to the commission, it meant that artists were told exactly what to create, thus reflecting the values of the most influential people of the time. Art was also considered to be decorative and was only ever expressive of the values of the time, never self expressive of the artists views. These values were then imposed on the rest of society as art was often public and created to be imposing, a constant reminder to society as to what the values of the time were.

During the mid 19th century salons were the centre of art and neo-classical works were exhibited. It was at the end of the 19th century that Realism appeared (after the Industrial Revolution). Artists had previously been commissioned, and relied on this to survive, however the industrial revolution resulted in a smaller gap in the wealth of the rich and the poverty poor. This meant that artists no longer had to be commissioned and were able to paint as a means of self-expression instead of what was required of them by the patrons of the art.

The invention of the camera was also around this time, this meant that painters were no longer in high demand for painting portraits and began painting in non-realistic ways that a camera could not Edouard Manet – a modernist artist – was a realist painter being the fore front of the impressionist movement. Manet was rejecting all classical ideals and used quotations from Renaissance sources (similar to appropriation during his time) to create what was a conscious affront to the traditions of the past. Realism was seen as a true flout of the classical ideals as artists began to choose ‘real’ subject matters instead of dealized or mythological forms. In Manet’s ‘Olympia’ he has used Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbino’ (1538) and modernized it by changing the woman of focus and subtle background symbols. Through this he challenged (instead of embracing) the ideals of the time and thus created a new movement representing the values of a changing society. Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbino’ – as suggested by the title – uses a universal ‘Venus’ nude female figure lying across a bed who, in Manet’s ‘Olympia’ is substituted by a real prostitute whom posed for the painting.

Manet was using what he considered ‘real’ beauty instead of an idealized fantasy created inside someone’s head. Manet was rebelling against the classical traditions of art, and so used this artwork to shock his intended audience. “Olympia was a slap in the face to all the complacent academic painters who regularly presented their exercises in scarcely disguised eroticism as virtuous homage to the gods and goddesses of classical antiquity”.

The appropriation of this artwork was specifically used as the audience of the time would have recognized the reference to a Renaissance painting, as well as being shocked by the new treatment of art – as self expression and challenge of society’s values. Manet’s representation of the body was considered ‘flat’, with a lack of tonal modeling and completely disregarded the strict way of painting which had been enforced by the Salon for many years.

In some areas his brush strokes can be seen (an aspect which was deemed unacceptable by the art critics of the time), and thus Manet challenged what society had always accepted and had a new representation of painting as well as subject matter. Instead of being influenced by what society approved of, Manet disregarded the ‘rules’ and challenged societies values (at the time) surrounding their perception of beauty, and forced his viewers to look at a new way of representation through art.

Pablo Picasso, another modernist artist of the cubist period painted ‘Le Demoiselles d’Avignon’ in 1907 by deconstructing the female figure into a fragmented form. His theme of the female figure being used for its beauty to create sexuality has been painted as an image of five females who represent prostitutes from Avignon Street. One of the women stands to the left pulling back a curtain, while the other four pose themselves as if they are on display for the male viewers, demonstrating their beauty and sexual lure.

Two of the central figures assume a classical Venus pose (a reference to classically idealized beauty), though their forms are simplified and slightly distorted revealing only the most basic shape of the female form. Picasso has painted two of the women with crude ‘masks’ which appear shocking to the viewer and their beauty is “divested of all accretions of culture – without appeal to privacy, tenderness, gallantry, or that appreciation of beauty which presupposes detachment and distance” (Steinburg).

Like Manet, Picasso has chosen to represent ‘real’ women who have natural beauty, not idealized figures and has represented them in a way which leaves only the most simplified female figure. This is done in an effort to again challenge the views thoughts as to what they truly value in terms of beauty. Though this is a specific value of society, it demonstrated the way in which the values of the particular time can be challenged through art which then becomes a representation or retaliation to the values of that time.

Picasso’s representation of beauty through the use of cubist techniques in ‘Le Demoiselles d’Avignon’ was considered a momentous work and is part of expressionist art. Picasso was not necessarily the creator of cubism, however through his painting ‘Le Demoiselles d’Avignon’, he “obliterated the lessons of the past” (History of Modernism, pg 186). Again rejecting what came before, Picasso ‘created’ a new way of representation through art. His work was considered ‘detonator of the modern movement, the cornerstone of twentieth-century art” (Robert Rosenblum).

Picasso’s painting was shocking to audiences, considered immoral with the power to “assault the viewer with its aggressively confrontational imagery”, however was becoming normal for the time in the sense that he was creating a new style of representation – being innovative – which was valued during the modernist era. Orlan is a French contemporary performance artist, an artist who manipulates her body, documenting the changes she makes by creating videos and using her own body as the artwork. Performance art is used to “heighten the capacity to think, feel and respond to visual experience. (Handbook of Art, pg 7) In the 1970’s, Orlan started to work using a variety of media’s exploring feminist issues (using her body as the main vehicle of expression). In 1990, she collected sections of Renaissance art works that represented idealised or mythological female figures and isolated parts of their bodies that she would have incorporated into her own body through plastic surgery. She had plastic surgeon use the images and recorded the entire medical procedure broadcasting it around the world, overlaying the video with audio discussions between doctors, feminist writers and psychiatrists.

From 1990-1993, Orlan performed a total of 9 surgeries on her own body. Some of the famous features Orlan included in her body were the forehead of da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’, the mouth of Boucher’s ‘Europa’ and the chin of Botticelli’s ‘Venus’. Her artwork illustrates how ridiculous it is for females to try and obtain this ‘idealised’ beauty through the new technologies of our age, and shows how horrific the surgical process truly is. In current society, media plays a large role in dictating what is considered ‘beautiful’, a value which has become a major focal point in today’s society. Art is used to comment directly on social and political issues. ” (Seeing Australia, pg 5). Orlan uses art to comment on the way in which society’s view of the body and its beauty has been distorted, and challenges the viewers to decide what they believe beauty really is and how far an artist should go to represent their views and ideas. Orlan’s use of plastic surgery as an art making technique is influenced by the easy access to the available resource, something that has only occurred over the past 20 years.

As societies view on beauty becomes more commercialised, the technology available to change ones appearance becomes more readily available. She uses plastic surgery to create a “self-portrait in the classical sense, yet realized through the technology of our time,” (Orlan). Her artwork has become a public comment on society’s values concerning beauty and thus her material practice is influenced by the time and place in which she has created her artwork as well and the subject matter which challenges the current values of society which is realised through today’s technologies

Julie Rrap is another contemporary artist who used herself many of her artworks (though not all and her body is never mutilated). Her art is used to comment on the body in the modern day and age and the way in which people are able to easily manipulate it. She uses photo manipulation, sculptures, installations and many other media’s. Her artwork ‘Over Stepping’ is a photo manipulation of the bottom half of a woman’s legs, whose feet have stiletto’s for heals.

The actual foot is made into a stiletto which gives the appearance of the heels being an extension of the natural foot. This artwork is designed to be a comment on science, in specific genetics which was close to patenting a hybrid at the time of the artworks creation. Rrap is commenting on societies need to create something new, in this case, a new body. She challenges the viewer to look at what society values and question today’s practices using a satirical and sarcastic view of the subject matter.

Rrap’s material practice (like Orlan) is influenced by today’s technology which allows her to create photo manipulations which look as though they are real. This shows the way in which time affects the physicality of an artwork as the materials available in the time of creation effect the visual product. It thus reflects society’s value to different forms of art as modern and contemporary art can be in new forms of such as photo manipulation or performance art like Orlan.

The physicality of an artwork is affected by the time and place in which it was created. This is seen through the works ‘Mosaic of Emperor Justinian and his Court’, ‘Olympia’ by Edouard Manet, ‘Le Demoiselles d’Avignon’ by Pablo Picasso, performance artist Orlan and ‘Overstepping’ by Julie Rrap as each artwork either depicts the values of the time or challenges the viewer about these values. Throughout time these representation have changed as the values of the society in which the artwork has been created transform.

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The Physicality of an Artwork Is a Product of Its Time and Place. (2016, Dec 11). Retrieved from

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