Formalism vs. contextualism in art history  

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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli
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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli
formalist vs contextualism

The study of visual art can be approached through the broad categories of contextualism and formalism.

They are described as:

  • Contextualism
    The approach whereby a work of art is examined in the context of its time; in a manner which respects its creator's motivations and imperatives; with consideration of the desires and prejudices of its patrons and sponsors; with a comparative analysis of themes and approaches of the creator's colleagues and teachers; and consideration of religious iconography and temporal symbolism. In short, this approach examines the work of art in the context of the world within which it was created.
  • Formalism
    The approach whereby the artwork is examined through an analysis of its form; that is, the creator's use of line, shape, color, texture, and composition. This approach examines how the artist uses a two-dimensional picture plane (or the three dimensions of sculptural or architectural space) to create his or her art. A formal analysis can further describe art as representational or non-representational; which answers the question, is the artist imitating an object or image found in nature? If so, it is representational. The closer the art hews to perfect imitation, the more the art is realistic. If the art is less imitation and more symbolism, or in an important way strives to capture nature's essence, rather than imitate it directly, the art is abstract. Impressionism is an example of a representational style that was not directly imitative, but strove to create an "impression" of nature. Of course, realism and abstraction exist on a continuum. If the work is not representational of nature, but an expression of the artist's feelings, longings and aspirations, or his or her search for ideals of beauty and form, the work is non-representational or a work of expressionism.




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Formalism vs. contextualism in art history" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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