Topic 5: Identity and the body


The viewer of an art work is not passive, but needs to interact with the work mentally.  The work is viewed in the light of the viewer’s gender, age, culture and time, in order to interpret the work’s subject, garner information about what is happening, and work out what the artist is attempting to communicate (and make the viewer’s own interpretation of meaning).

When the artist’s life experience is similar to the viewer’s (e.g. cultural group, time, age etc.) the reading which occurs is more likely to be closer to the intent of the artist than if the viewer is separated from the artist by time, culture etc.  (e.g. the Old Masters produced works for specific purposes – e.g. Church altar pieces.  Today we view these primarily as art works, not objects for reflection or focus of worship.)

The artist’s eye:  exploring concepts of identity

  • Throughout history the body has been the main subject of art.
  • This has expanded in the 20th century with body art, installation and performance art and even directly changing the body as art.
  • When painting a portrait, the artist views the subject as a spectator – which is the same view that he paints and that the viewer of the painting sees.  The viewer sees the portrait through the artist’s eyes.

Your Second Self:  Developing identity in the Virtual World

  • proposal that students devise an Avatar (from the Sanskrit – a manifestation of Vishnu who has many earthly manifestations each of which displays part of Vishnu to the world)
  • Program to use – Second Life – online play site, where one creates an avatar and interacts with other people’s avatars.

Women and Art

Cites Langer (1957) (no source given) that artistic expression is a major form of symbolic representation within the aesthetic experience and that the arts are the spearhead of every cultural advance because they are the opening of the inward eye: the record of life from the subconscious to the highest intensity of emotion and awareness.

  • viewing art is an interaction between the work and the viewer
  • artists communicate via symbols which are familiar to the viewer

Uses the work of Del Kathryn Barton to illustrate this

The Artist’s Eye : Women portraits exploring concepts of identity

  • the Berger view that in art, when the figure is portrayed the perspective is the male gaze.
  • the artist disappears – the interaction is between the work and the spectator, except for self-portraiture.

Artist focus Del Kathryn Barton – self portraits.

  • various paintings depicted, including the winner of the 2008 Archibald Prize.
  • Del Kathryn Barton You are what is most beautiful about me 2008 Image source:
  • Title alludes to the strong feelings mothers have towards their children – from the intimacy of giving birth.
  • From an interview with DKB
    • took photographs of self, son and daughter from which she worked
    • worked from a prior idea of composition
    • “With my paintings (as opposed to my drawings) I find that I have to exhaust the pictorial space before I feel that I can release it from the studio. “
    • Influenced by Egon Scheile and Gustav Klimt, and traditional Indian miniatures ‘especially the colour symbology’.
    • The work is an attempt to use iconography to symbolise the fertility of love and life.
    • Effect of winning the Archibald – fame – bringing a larger viewing public to Barwon’s work.  More people come to her shows because of it.
  • Del Kathryn Barton uses traditional painting techniques with contemporary illustrative styles.  Most of her figurative is self-referential (not a great deal of other portraiture) (nb. she won the Archibald a second time in 2013 with a portrait of Hugo Weaving.
  • Del Kathryn Barton, hugo, 2013 Image source:

Reflection questions.

Does the artist have to know the subject?  How well?  Can a an artist make an effective portrait of someone whose views they disagree with?

  • the better the artist knows the subject, the more likely they are to capture something more than a mere likeness.  However, traditionally portrait painters painted on commission, and may have had little chance to get to know their subjects (more so if the subjects are famous – e.g. portraits of the Queen – Annie Leibovitz discusses how she made her portraits of QEII in her book At Work (2008)
  • Artists can depict unsympathetic subjects very effectively – e.g. Francis Bacon,

    Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953

    Image source:’s_Portrait_of_Pope_Innocent_X.jpg

  • The portrait shows evokes the agony this Pope Innocent X imposed on many of his subjects.

Do viewers engage differently to abstract works compared to figurative works.

  • The analysis of a subject – as an expression of a person, place or event in the real world is absent for purely abstract works.
  • Both may have an emotional impact – though for abstraction, this will have more to do with form than subject.
  • when analysing an abstract work, the viewer may move straight to formal elements – medium, key, colour, composition, size, composition etc.  (these are also part of analysis of figurative work, but not the primary way of looking)

self-portrait vs portrait of other subject –

  • The artist puts self on the line in the self-portrait, deciding what aspects of personality etc. they wish to show.
  • In portrait of others, many factors may come into play – is it a commission? how insightful should one become – how does one show this?  How can personality be depicted (in either case)?


(nb Backing music is Bach Cello suite – the use of classical music to reinforce the ‘quality’ of this – how would a pop song equate?)  Music is just as much a way of giving a covert message as image may be.

Portraits in modern society

  • prevalence of ‘selfies’ put out on social media for all to see – a new phenomenon.
  • Painted portraits no longer needed to show us what we look like – this medium has also been freed up for less photographic representations – which may be much more insightful than e.g. a renaissance portrait of people in a family dynasty.
  • The photograph can be just as insightful as a painted portrait – this takes as much skill as that shown by the master portrait painter (e.g. Annie Leibovitz).
  • Portraits need not aspire to an exact, photographic likeness of the person depicted – though likeness is obvious in a most portraits – e.g. Dobell won the Archibald in 1943 with this portrait of Joshua Smith
  • Image source:
  • Del Kathryn Barton’s two winning entries are not at all photographic, but are good likenesses of the subjects.
  • Portraits may be comments – e.g. the many early winners of the Archibald Prize were besuited or berobed middle-aged professional men – this now gives the view of the prevailing power of the time, where artists and their subjects for the prize were almost all men (later portrait of Margaret Ollie 1948 was a jewel among these stuffed shirts).  In more recent years, there is less imbalance between male and female winning works (though still many more men than women)
  • Portraits can make comment about issues – e.g. feminism – Del Kathryn Barton’s many breasted women do, and there are many other examples.





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