The Nature of Changes In the Fine Arts

The historic events and influences that we have just discussed led to changes of attitude in the artists, and affected the art itself in three major ways:

  1. Changes of content or subject matter

  2. Changes of form through a preoccupation with the principles and elements of design and color at the expense of traditional concerns with "reality" of form

  3. Changes in the materials utilized by artists

Changes in Content or Subject Matter in the Fine Arts

In an effort to enable themselves and their audience to perceive their messages in a new way, artists seek to find new ways to present their ideas. The intention is to create something fresh and unexpected-- to "surprise" the viewer into giving his/her full attention to the work of art. In addition, as the social and political climate shifts, the perspective of the artist must also shift to take new circumstances into account. Thus many of the greatest artists have troubled, confounded, and shocked their publics. Among the artists discussed in class are Michelangelo (use of nudity in religious art), Rembrandt (ordinary every day subject matter), Manet (reinterpretation of classical themes, nudity vs. nakedness), Courbet (Peasant subjects, social protest), Monet (changes of technique), Toulouse Lautrec (prostitutes as subject matter), George Segal (new techniques and materials for sculpture of human figures), Matisse (use of color and form).

The history of art and design does not occur in a vacuum. Artists and designers are only responding to the events of their time. These are some of the issues that motivated changes in subject matter since the mid-19th century:

  • The Development of Photography

  • Colonialism and the Influence of Non-European Cultures

  • The Development of Psychoanalysis

  • The social and political environment changed drastically during this period. Society moved from the ancient traditional rule of religiously sanctioned autocracies into an era of secular democracies and dictatorships. The industrial revolution also contributed to the restructuring of society. Technology, colonialism, and social change brought about contacts between peoples previously separated by distance, language, and social status. The result has been more than a century of turbulence, social struggle, and warfare, all of which can be seen in the arts of the times.

    Change in Content: The Development of Photography

    Since the 1840s photography has offered a mechanical means of faithfully recording visual data that surpassed the ability of the painter. The earliest commercially successful form of photography was the daguerrotype (click on Gallery on the left). Since photography could record visual data so perfectly, the artist was left to wonder what he could do that the camera could not. This led to many experiments in style, technique, and interpretation. For other examples of early photography, try this link to Edweard Muybridge, an early practitioner of stop-action photography; or this collection of early photographs.

    The creation of photographic images has also evolved into an art form in its own right. Early practitioners such as Matthew Brady , Alfred Stieglitz and others brought the possibilities of the camera well beyond that of a mechanical device for copying visual "facts." There has been an ongoing dialogue between the painter and the photographer, as each has learned from the vision of the other.

    The existence of photographic images inspired artists to look for other subject matter. Artists began to concern themselves with issues such as the effects of light, the relationships of color, and the fundamental character of form and mass. Comparisons of photographs with paintings by such artists as Monet and Cezanne show that the artist was selecting, simplifying, flattening, intensifying, even abstracting the view which is before his eyes.

    One of the first modern movements to emerge was Impressionism . The subject matter of Impressionism was light. These painters were interested in studying how changes in light affected color. They left the studio where artists had traditionally worked even when doing paintings of nature. In natural settings they explored the ways in which changing light conditions altered the appearance of color and form. One of the leading figures in the development of Impressionism was Monet, whose work gave its name to this movement.

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