The "ISMS" of Art

By Hubbard, Guy | Arts & Activities, September 2001 | Go to article overview

The "ISMS" of Art


Hubbard, Guy, Arts & Activities


One way of learning about art is to study the work of individual artists, such as Leonardo da Vinci, since art is very personal and each artist's work is unique. Another way is to look at art named after the places and times it was made, such as Egyptian or Victorian.

Yet another useful way of learning about art is to describe it as belonging to a particular set of ideas. For example, a popular art movement that spread all over the world is called "Impressionism."

Other artists have joined together in groups, also with names ending in "ism"; but these names can often be confusing. For that reason, this year's Clip & Save articles will explain what artists belonging to some of the more important "isms" of art have been trying to do.

Art movements are not new. The oldest are Classicism and Romanticism. Classical art was invented in ancient Greece and later adopted by the Romans; and it was revived more than 1,000 years later during the Italian Renaissance. Since then, Western artists have been guided by the rules of Classicism, and the shapes, patterns and proportions they use are similar to those first invented by ancient Greek artists. People and animals are likely to be handsome, well-proportioned and posed in well-thought-out groups that are in ways either athletic or elegant. The proportions and designs of Classical buildings are also similar to those found in Greece and Rome, and are equally elegant. Classical designs of clothing and decoration have similar origins.

Of course, all artistic styles show themselves differently in the work of every artist, and changes occur every time a style is rediscovered; but with practice, students will be able to identify them. They will also know about a style by the way it is named. A newer kind of Classicism in art is likely to be called Neoclassicism. The statue shown in this article by the sculptor, Horatio Greenough, is an example of American Neoclassical art of 150 years ago.

A very different kind of art from Classicism is named Romanticism. Like Classical art, it has ancient origins. Unlike Classicism, however, it usually emphasizes themes that are passionate or violent, rather than cool and elegant. And compared with Classicism, Romanticism in art has fewer rules about how art should be created. For example, Romantic art is likely to be created quite quickly and show powerful, often disturbing, human feelings.

Romantic artists are also likely to distort the shapes of people and animals, while buildings and landscapes are frequently seen to be magical or mysterious--and often threatening. For example, Gothic castles, including ruins, are often described as Romantic. The picture shown here is by Thomas Cole, who was an American Romantic painter working in the 19th century.

While numbers of people believe that Romanticism in art first appeared in northern Europe, and Classicism began on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, that is too simple an explanation. These artistic opposites have occurred all over the world at different times and in different ways. To understand recent European and American art, knowing about these two traditions is useful and they will be mentioned repeatedly in this year's Clip & Save articles.

Yet another long-standing "ism" that students may find useful to know about is Realism. While Greek and Roman sculpture is often thought to be realistic, human figures are actually distorted to fit shapes and proportions that were carved to be perfect or ideal. Classical art was revived during the Italian Renaissance long after the end of the Roman Empire. The contrast of Renaissance art with the painting and sculpture made during the Middle Ages was so great, however, that people came to think of Classical art as realistic--even though it is not. Most Renaissance artworks are not examples of Realism, either.

Realism is really only a few hundred years old. It is the attempt at exact replication of what was in front of an artist.

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