Claude Monet – Water (1907), 72 X 101.5 cm, collection of Israel museum, Jerusalem, source: Wikicommons, public domain
Style, subject matter, content and context are all terms that can seem confusing or intimidating to students of art appreciation or art history. Many of these terms can have multiple meanings or ideas embedded within them. If we look at Claude Monet’s Water above, style can refer to Impressionism, the movement to which Monet belonged personally, and the style with which his art is most associated. But, we can also refer to the painting as being naturalistic, in that it refers to the natural work in some fashion, and the waterlilies and other elements are clearly recognizable as coming from the natural world. So, therefore the term style, can mean at least 2 different things in this particular case. Let’s go through meanings 1 at a time.
Styles, when the term is used in a more generic sense, often describe the manner in which an artist created the particular work of art. This may be naturalistic (also called representative), idealized, classical, stylized, surreal, abstract, or non-naturalistic (non-representative). What does each of those things mean in terms of art? We have our example of a naturalistic work above with Water.
Copy of Polykleitos, Doryphoros, original 5th century BCE, By Gautier Poupeau from Paris, France – Réplique du doryphore de Polyclète, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35036726
If you look at the image above, based on a 5th century BCE Greek original by Polykleitos, you can see how idealized the form is to show the image of human perfection from a Greek point of view. So, we can say, then, that idealized works are those they show perfection from a cultural point of view. The piece can also be described as Classical, since it both comes from the Classical period of Western history, and represents the high point of that period stylistically. This also shows how styles can be cultural, they can represent specific cultures, time periods, or places.
By Egon Schiele, Seated Male Nude (Self-Portrait), 1910, oil and gouache on canvas, 152.5×150 cm (Leopold Museum, Vienna) – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=158783
The Egon Schiele painting above is stylized in that it represents the nude human form in an unrealistic manner, and is painted in the manner in which Schiele usually depicted his forms. We can also call this abstract in that it depicts a natural form in a distorted or unnatural manner. Here we could point out that abstract is also used to refer to Modernist art that distorts forms whether naturalistic or not. Schiele’s painting also demonstrates the personal style of this artist.
Meret Oppenheim, Object (Le Déjeuner en fourrure), 1936, (MOMA, New York) By Antonio Campoy Ederra [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
An artwork like Meret Oppenheim’s Object is surreal, in that it is unexpected in daily life. This can also refer to something from the artist’s imagination. (Think of Salvador DalÍ’s Persistence of Memory.)
The fountain above is an example of non-naturalistic, also known as non-representative or non-objective art. The forms come purely from the artist’s imagination, and do not represent things from the natural world.
Subject matter is the basic idea contained in the work of art. For both Schiele’s painting and Polykleitos’s sculpture, the basic idea is the human male nude form. What about the other works of art? Gabo’s fountain is both about movement, as it is kinetic, and geometry. Monet’s painting is about light, color, and his water garden. Oppenheim’s Object is about strange juxtapositions. Subject matter is a fairly simple idea contained within the work of art. It becomes more complex when we add in content.
The basic definition here is that content is the themes and messages contained within a work of art, and conveyed through the subject matter, as well as symbolic and iconographic references. Symbols and iconography, or the system of symbols that refers to complex ideas, are always culturally specific. Let’s look at how content can add to the discussion of style and subject matter in a work of art.
Using Meret Oppenheim’s Object as our example, we have already said that the style is surreal, and the subject matter is strange juxtapositions. Let’s look at the symbols and iconography here, and the themes and messages they convey. At its heart, Object is a tea cup, saucer, and spoon that has been covered in fur. If we ask why Oppenheim, a female artist, would do this, we need to think about femininity and gender roles in the early 20th century. Women were often seen only as muses for artists, and Oppenheim broke this mold. The story of this piece also begins with a lunch with Pablo Picasso and his lover, Dora Maar, where Picasso stated that anything could be covered in fur. The tea cup and saucer now become something suggestive, tactile, and a bit disturbing. Rather than being symbols of domestic femininity, they can be read as something more, something perhaps threatening.
Adding in the content to a work of art shifts the way in which we think about and interact with that work of art. What happens if context is laid on top of that?
Context can be defined as the meaning of a work of art, impacted by its history, the mode of encounter and surroundings, and the writings about that work of art. Let’s also define “mode of encounter.” When this is mentioned with regards to a work of art, we mean where and when you see that work of art. Is it in a museum? A sculpture garden? An online blog? Each of these modes of encounter will change your perception of the piece slightly due to lighting, the other things around it, or the things written about the work. Think of it this way, how would your experience of Naum Gabo’s Revolving Torsion change if it were removed from the hospital garden, and placed in a museum? Would it seem as interesting or spectacular?
How do writings fit in with this? Well, everything a critic, art historian, curator, or student writes about a work of art adds to perceptions, meanings, and interpretations of that work of art. So, when we write about Egon Schiele’s Seated Male Nude, we may discuss the expressive nature of the piece; his distortions of the human form for emotional impact; or the frank depiction of human suffering contained within the piece. We can also use articles and videos of the work to add to our own understanding of the content of the work.
In the end, as we can see in this post, all of these things, style, subject matter, content, and context, all work together to increase our own understanding of the artistic experience.