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CONTEXT: FUNCTION AND MEANING
Techniques of painting and sculpture, and skills acquired for representation, were rarely employed as ends in themselves. Most large-scale works of art were created for a purpose, whether religious, social, political or, exceptionally, to express an artist's inner vision. And few objects were made by human beings without some regard for qualities that appeal to the mind as well as the senses. An almost universal demand for symmetry, patterning and color combinations can be felt in the simplest household articles dating from the earliest times. They answer two basic human urges: to impose order on nature and natural forms, and to assert individuality by marking the differences between one human being or group and another. Objects are made and decorated in accordance with preferences for certain forms and colors developed within a social group as part of its traditional way of life. Shields are a case in point. They are found in nearly all cultures throughout human history. Yet despite their simple unitary purpose, they differ far more widely in shape (round, ovoid, hexagonal, etc.) than can be explained by function or medium - modes of combat or types of material available. A particular shape of shield could, for instance, be a distinguishing mark for a group or tribe or clan. Color was often similarly used and so were figurative designs such as the coats of arms of European heraldry, especially to indicate the bearer's rank. But they often had an additional, magically protective purpose. Thus a shield shown in a sixth-century AD mosaic at Ravenna (7,29) bears a Christian symbol. The painting on a shield from the Trobriand islands in Melanesia (18,9) is, perhaps intentionally, difficult for people from elsewhere to interpret but almost certainly had some magic significance. Many other types of painting and also of sculpture were similarly apotropaic (intended to ward off evil) - the great lamassu of Assyrian palaces (pp. 109-10), for instance, or the gargoyles that leer out from Gothic churches. In them art and magic are very closely integrated.
However accessible their formal qualities may be to us, however engaging their subject-matter, works of art cannot be properly or fully understood unless related to their original context - to the beliefs, hopes and fears of the people by whom and for whom they were made, which may differ widely from those prevalent nowadays in the West. In many works of art there are several superimposed levels of meaning which cannot always be recovered. For meanings have been conveyed visually in a variety of interconnected ways, from the most direct (in representations of deities and rulers) to the symbolic (by the use of conventional colors or of such non-representational signs as haloes) and the allegorical (by the personification of abstract ideas, for example a blindfold woman holding a sword and balance to represent justice). Iconography, the study of visual images, is devoted to elucidating the original meanings of works of art by reference to the literary sources of narrative compositions and by investigating the symbols and types of allegory used by artists in different places and periods.
Pictorial devices used to enforce meanings are so familiar that they can often be taken for granted, symmetry to suggest a stable order, for instance, asymmetry to convey dynamism or violent emotion. As already mentioned, scale may emphasize a figure's importance, often together with a central position, as in groups of three which recur in the art of the world. The larger central figure is normally posed frontally, looking straight ahead, while those on either side may be in profile. When symmetry is avoided, as in narrative art, and figures are scaled naturalistically, the protagonists are distinguished more subtly by placing them against a blank background, or by arranging the scene so that the spectator's eye is directed to them by the dominant lines of the composition.
Sculptors used similar devices to emphasize meaning, especially when working in low relief or high relief (that is to say, with figures at least half in the round). In ancient Egyptian art there is little distinction between wall-painting and reliefs, which were painted and colored; the same conventions were observed in both. The materials of sculpture might have significance too. Precious metals, bronze and types of hard stone that demand great expenditure of labour in carving, as well as being costly, often reflected the importance of the subject represented. Their durability was also expressive: marble statues and the gilded monuments of princes' were intended to last for ever. Similarly, sheer size could denote superhuman power, sculpture larger than life-size generally being reserved for religious and political imagery - closely related in ancient Egypt, imperial Rome and the Cambodia of the Khmer. The third dimension gives sculpture a tangible presence and in many cultures statues were regarded as receptacles for a human or divine spirit and thus became objects of veneration, if not worship. Hence the very strict rules that governed their forms and sometimes the process by which they were made. Hence, too, the ban placed on them by more than one religion.
Size and media are no less demonstrative in architecture. A building larger than its neighbours or raised above their level on a platform declares an importance which might be
further emphasized by the use of distinguishing materials. In some places laws regulated the size of houses and their exterior decorations according to the social class of the people who lived in them. Need for shelter is no more than a point of departure for buildings and in most cultures architecture has been concerned mainly with the creation of a human environment and thus involves the manipulation of space as well as mass, answering a need for a defined spatial frame within which human actions can both literally and metaphorically'take place'. The lay-out of a settlement corresponds to its inhabitants' conception of their relationship with one another and with exterior forces. Order is established by planning, and a grid-iron or chequer-board plan was often adopted in absolutist states where land-ownership was vested only in the ruler and portions were parcelled out among subjects (although it also came to be adopted simply as a convenience for new towns in ancient Greece and colonial North America). Strong axes or paths control movement towards a goal or outwards from a central point. Very often and in different parts of the world individual buildings and whole cities have been oriented on astronomical phenomena (sunrise and sunset or the movement of the stars) to maintain harmony between life on earth and the heavens above. The west-east axis of a Christian church has cosmic significance combined with the symbolism of the believer's path from initiation to salvation and eternal life. Such spatial organization provides, as it were, the grammar of an architectural language. Symbolic meanings are spelled out. Domed roofs, for instance, usually reserved for regal and religious structures, reflect the hemisphere of the firmament, as is often made clear by the painted or mosaic decoration of their interiors - indeed they were often understood as symbols of'the dome of heaven', and not only in Western architecture. Articulation of mass can create such effects as those of processional movement along a horizontal path or up one of aspiring verticality. In this way a building is given architectural expression or character within the spatial field which it dominates or helps to define.
Architecture has often been employed to assist as well as signal the subjugation of one group of people by another. Muslims who conquered most of northern India in the twelfth century made their presence felt visually by building mosques which differed conspicuously in form, extent and manner of building from Hindu temples, many of which were demolished to provide material. The arch, vault and dome were so obviously associated with Islam that, despite their practical advantages, they were shunned in the Hindu-ruled southern states of India. (Muslims remained a minority of the population in China, on the other hand, and constructed mosques in local styles with minarets in the form of pagodas!) The British occupation of India was signalled architecturally by Neo-Gothic railway stations and imperial Roman administrative buildings. Wherever Western imperialism spread, buildings in European styles marked its arrival. And not only buildings. Sculptors were enrolled in the process of making colonized territory - in the words of Franz Fanon (born and brought up in French Martinique) - 'a world of statues: the statue of the general who carried out the conquest, the statue of the engineer who built the bridge; a world which is sure of itself, which crushes with stones the backs flayed with whips'. In Europe and North America also, statues of white men, rarely women, larger than life-size and raised high on pedestals, asserted the ambitions of those who commissioned them.
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