Islamic Art History
The 4-part analysis method
The 4-part analysis method that art historians use:
physical properties formal or visual structure (also known simply as form) subject matter and symbolism (also known as content or meaning) cultural context
1-The first part of the four-part analysis considers physical properties.
Here are some questions we ask when we :
What type of artwork is it: painting, sculpture, architecture, textile, woodwork? What is the work made of: stone, crushed minerals, ? How is that material visible? Is it smooth and hard or textured and rough? How has the material been handled? What technique was used to manipulate the
material? How big is the work? How does it compare to the size of a human body? Hint: The
textbook provides scale comparisons for all illustrations.
When we answer those questions, we provide evidence as it appears in the work of art.
Form refers to the appearance of the work of art. We also call it the visual structure or style of the work of art.
Form consists of how the artist uses the materials to create visual expression. This expression comes through the building blocks of the work of art known as the visual elements (color, line, light, texture, shape, space) and composition (organization of shapes, balance, and proportion).
The choice of how to handle these building blocks of the work of art–known as formal elements and principles of design–is sometimes dictated by how all artists of a particular time and place work. We call this a period or cultural style. In other cases, especially in the modern era, the choice of formal characteristics is individual and the artist has a personal style.
What about form in architecture? This refers to the building blocks of floor plan, structural elements like columns and domes, and the decorative elements that adorn the building.
Artists of a particular period and culture typically share similar forms or style. Knowing the formal characteristics of this style an essential part of art history.
When you analyze form or visual structure, here are some questions to ask.
Is the work naturalistic? Does it look like things do in nature or does it depart from visible forms? How?
How is space presented? Does it create an illusion of three dimensions or is it flatter? How is color handled? Do the colors look like they do in nature? Do they repeat
throughout the image? How is line handled? Are things outlined? Are there real lines (like a road) or implied
lines (like a line of sight)? How are light and shadow handled? Is everything bathed in an even light or are there
dramatic highlights and deep shadows? Does shading help make things look three- dimensional?
How is the work organized? Is everything lined up in a row or are they grouped in a pyramid? How are things arranged in the work?
As you answer these questions, provide evidence from the work of art to support your statements.
3. Subject Matter:
Art has two levels of meaning also known as content or subject. The first is natural subject matter.
The second is a deeper, symbolic level of meaning based on with symbols. To get at this deeper, symbolic level of meaning in a work of art, we interpret the iconography.
Iconography refers to the symbols and signs in a work of art that communicate meaning.
To understand these signs, we have to learn about the art of the particular time and about the conventions for . Analyzing content frequently requires research. You should not guess based on what you know from other contexts.
Here are some questions to ask when you analyze subject/content/iconography:
What is the natural subject matter? What symbols accompany this natural subject matter?
What are figures in the work wearing? What are figures in the work doing? Is there a story being told? When and where was this work made (the meaning of symbols varies between
When we perform an analysis of subject and answer these questions, we read the symbols, interpret them based on the culture, and draw conclusions based on logic and research.
To get to the fullest understanding of a work of art, we have to consider the context in which it was made and seen.
This means the historical place and moment–Rome in 100CE or Athens in 180BCE–and all of the ideas of that time and place. These ideas include religion, philosophy, economics, politics, and social relations.
Context affects style and meaning. Art looks one way in India in 1200CE, a very different way in England in 1200CE, and a different way in France in 1700CE. The subject matter and iconography of the art in those places are also very different because the religion, politics, philosophy, economics, and social relations were different.
Every work of art is a product of its context. To interpret it fully, we have to examine how the work reflects, responds to, and functions in that context.
When you analyze a work for its context, here are some questions to ask:
When was this made? Who was it made for? Where was it meant to be seen and by whom? What goal did the patron have for this work? What function was it supposed to play? How does this work reflect the political or religious situation when it was made? What philosophy or ideology does the work promote or challenge?
Evidence for context is both visual and based on research. As with subject, analyzing context will require research on the time and place of the work’s making. Don’t guess based on your own circumstances.
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