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STYLE AND INDIVIDUAL EXPRESSION

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The word style is derived from stylus, the writing instrument of the ancient Romans, and was first used metaphorically for the various ways of public speaking appropriate for different occasions - when addressing a large popular audience, for instance, or when talking to a few highly educated people. In the history of art it is used in two somewhat deceptively similar senses both of which have analogies with writing, to the work of an individual and to that of a chronologically and geographically defined group. An individual style, akin to handwriting and similarly recognizable, is sometimes merely a set of mannerisms - quirks in the manipulation of media or in the rendering of detail, preference for a particular color scheme, and so on - hence its use in attributing unsigned pictures to named artists. But it can be very much more. It can convey or at least imply artists' whole outlook and range of response, their view of themselves and of the human condition - all can be sensed in the way a subject is rendered, sensuously or cerebrally, emotionally or dispassionately. A style, in this sense of the term, may be evolved throughout the course of an artist's life, reflecting a continual struggle with materials and meanings. The very obvious differences between early and late paintings by Titian, for instance (pp. 504-5), reveal how he developed an ever more deeply personal visual idiom or style in the course of his long career. And one artist's lonely quest for a new and more effective means of expression might inspire others and lead to a modification in the style of a whole group of artists.

The style of a group, from which that of an individual initially derives, is a visual language with a vocabulary of forms and motifs and a syntax governing their relationship. Different styles may, however, be adopted for different purposes even in a small social group, one being reserved for religious art, rather as the language of worship may differ from that otherwise spoken (Latin until recently in Catholic countries, Arabic throughout the Islamic world, Sanskrit in India). In stratified societies, different styles have been adopted in works of art made for people of different social levels: one for the-upper classes, others for the rest of the population. The art made for a royal court and that for the richer citizens differed mainly in the relative costliness of materials and the expenditure of time in working with them, sometimes conditioning the development of usually only slightly different styles. And these styles differed still more markedly from that of the often very vital, though usually conservative, so-called folk art made by and for people living in small towns and the country. Since the nineteenth century in the West, however, there has been a more striking breach between the styles favoured by the intelligentsia and those with a wide popular appeal, which many recent artists have attempted to bridge, notably in Pop Art (see p. 854). These factors and also the susceptibility of styles to change - which includes reversions to styles of earlier periods (a prominent feature in both Western and Chinese art) and the adoption of those of alien cultures - sharply distinguish the history of art from that of science or technology. Such changes were sometimes brought about by contemporary movements in thought, especially religious belief, or by political or economic circumstances. But they were effected exclusively by individuals. Styles were the creation of painters, sculptors, architects, weavers, potters, and so on. And although many of their works may be anonymous, that is to say by artists unknown to us today, they are always the unique products of the brains and hands of individual men and women, however much conditioned by shared traditions and other circumstances of time and place.



The categorization of styles has, however, been the work not of artists but of writers who have tried to impose a semblance of order on the manifold and infinitely diverse expressions of creative activity - a system akin to but without the precision of botanical classification of plants in genera, species, and so on. The names given to historical styles often have no more than a chronological significance, especially those derived from dynasties of rulers (in Egypt, India, China and Japan, for instance) or the reigns of monarchs (more usual in Europe), which subdivide and may overlap divisions by centuries. Others, applied to the history of Western art, are mainly the later inventions of writers and would seldom have been understood by the artists who created the styles, whose aims they rarely express. Several, including Gothic, Baroque, Rococo and Neo-Classical, originated as terms of abuse or disdain for the outmoded. Such labels can be useful as a means of distinguishing styles that coexist, derive from and merge into others, or are developed in one place and taken up elsewhere. They may be defined by analyzing their formal, exclusively artistic, characteristics. The distinctions between conceptual and perceptual images, linear and painterly techniques, have already been mentioned. But there are others no less helpful in the discussion of styles.

Form - that is, the configuration in bulk of an object whether drawn, painted, modelled or carved - is said to be closed or open according to whether or not it constitutes a compact mass. Sculptural forms may be frontal and closed or free-standing; intended to be seen from a single, fixed viewpoint or from all sides; monolithically static or rendered in such a way (usually an open form) as to suggest the possibility of movement. In painting, a full-face or pure profile head is usually a static image whereas a three-quarters view, though no less closed as a form, may suggest movement. A composition in which forms are juxtaposed may be said to be closed or open according to whether it isolates the subject or presents it as part of a world which the viewer is invited to enter. In the latter, forms are seen in a defined space that may cover an area of ground receding from the viewer, depicted according to some system of perspective (see pp. 21-23) which might also regulate the relative size of figures at a distance from the foreground in a naturalistic image, that is to say one that shows or purports to show objects, especially human figures, as they commonly appear.

Naturalism is a characteristic of several styles in Western art; that of Dutch seventeenth-century painters, for instance. There are, however, degrees of naturalism, notably the Realism of Gustave Courbet and other mid-nineteenth-century painters who sought to represent the harsh realities of contemporary life with uncompromising candour. Naturalism is usually contrasted with Idealism, which characterized the Neo-Classical style of the late eighteenth century, and may be defined as the representation of natural objects according to an ideal of perfection that could be discovered, it was believed, beneath the blemishes of the common face of nature. (It should be mentioned that the terms naturalism, realism and idealism have quite different meanings in philosophy.)

Idealist artists sought, above all, the perfect proportions of the human figure, that is, the relationship in size of parts of the human body to one another and the whole, derived from ancient Greek statues. This scale of proportions is not universally valid. It differs from that adopted by Egyptian artists (see p. 73). In India different scales were demanded for images of deities and those of devotees. A sense of good or harmonious proportions is probably acquired unconsciously in childhood like an ear for musical harmony, with notable differences between cultures, and often governs all artifacts including utilitarian objects made within a single culture. Sometimes, however, artists have deliberately broken with the norm of proportional ratios, not only in rendering the human figure. The relationship of height to width of a painting is often relevant, even decisive. An unusual extension of one dimension at the expense of another can be a means of expression.

A scale of architectural proportions is based on a module or unit of measurement, originally part of the human body (for example, the foot), multiplied and divided into simple fractions for all dimensions. In Classical architecture (ancient Greek and Roman temples and buildings that derive from them) a proportional system is established by the mathematical relation between the width of a column - a single module - and its height, though this was rarely worked out precisely in practice. Stylistic categorization of buildings takes into account the simplicity or complexity of their proportions, and also of their plans - that is to say the disposition of areas on a single level, though the same word is used for diagrams of them. In a plan a closed area may be centralized, as in the Pantheon in Rome (see p. 205), or axial, as in Early Christian basilicas (see p. 306). Enclosed space or volume may be so simple (cube, double cube and so on) that it can be sensed on entering, or so complex that its boundaries are difficult to discern, as in some Gothic cathedrals. The exterior form or mass of a building may indicate or disguise its volumes. Another prominent characteristic of an architectural style is the articulation of facades or interior walls, that is to say their division into parts by projections, recessions and openings (doors and windows), with or without regard to symmetry or the correspondence of parts on either side of the centre. In the ornamentation of surface, architectural styles reflect preferences that may range from the linear shapes of pure geometry (circle and rectangle) to boldly modelled organic forms.

Many of the formal terms used for stylistic categorization are based on concepts that can rarely have been present in the minds of artists or architects in the past. A preference for closed rather than open forms or compositions, for tightly integrated or asymmetrical plans, and so on, may of course have been adopted instinctively and thus indicate the ethos or distinctive character of a culture. And the study of historical styles can be illuminating when it relates diverse works of art to one another, to the literature and music and more generally to the life and thought of the time and place in which they were made.


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