Click on photos to enlarge.

Friday, January 6, 2017

The Art Speak Vocabulary

About three months ago I wrote about what's commonly known as "Art Speak." I referred to it as a "foreign" language primarily aimed at discussing and understand Modern Art. Like every language, Art Speak has its own vocabulary which, fortunately, most artists, and even much of the general public has a fair degree of understanding. It's not that the vocabulary is all that foreign or difficult. The problem is that it uses fairly common words and phrases but assigns art-specific meanings to them. "Picture plane" is an example. We all know what a picture is and we know what a plane is but the Art Speak definition has nothing to do with aviation. The picture plane is simply an illusionary window parallel to the physical surface of a two-dimensional work of art through which the viewer observes the content of a painting, drawing, or print. The picture plane is usually bounded by the picture frame.
I often worry, in writing about art, if I'm not going "over the heads" of my readers--engaging in advanced art to speak. If or when I have, I apologize. At the same time, in highlighting some of the terms involved in the language of art, I also run the risk of insulting the intelligence of many of my readers by defining that which might be termed "common knowledge" among artists. The problem is, of course, that there is a vast range of art knowledge, experience, and technical competence among my readers. If I mention "Ben Day dots," for instance, the reactions probably range from "any idiot knows that" to "who the hell is Ben Day?" (They're the tiny dots used in color printing, especially cartoon half-tones, as seen in the paintings of Pop artist, Roy Lichtenstein, [below].) Who the hell Ben Day may have been is irrelevant. (As you may have guessed, he invented the printing process.)
What Ben Day dots hath wrought.
Thus I've done my best to avoid the most common art terms, even though some are quite complex and often incompletely understood even by many experienced artists. At the same time I've also made an effort to avoid the "who the hell cares" terms so esoteric many of which I've never heard of either. My first inclination was to list these terms in alphabetical order, but then again, I'm not putting together a dictionary. Instead I'm grouping them as they relate one to another, with an aim towards understanding rather than easy reference. In general, they fall into categories related to art history, art thinking, art creation, and some general terms which don't fall neatly into any of the other three categories. Where possible I've linked to earlier postings covering more detail.
ART HISTORY-- (roughly in chronological order)
Baroque--a style of art characterized by dramatic, extravagant, complex, highly emotional art and architecture developed in Europe from the early 17th to mid-18th-century, typified by bold, curving forms, elaborate ornamentation, and overall balance of various parts.
Rococo--was a style of art, architecture, and decorative art, originating in France in the early 1700s. It was marked by vaguely erotic and elaborate ornamentation, such as a profusion of scrolls, foliage, and fanciful animal forms.
Romanticism--was an artistic, literary, musical, and intellectual movement originating in Europe toward the middle of the 19th-century. It was characterized by an emphasis on emotion and individualism as well as glorification of the past preferring the medieval over the classical.
Victorian Era--applied as much to history and social behavior as to art. It corresponds to the reign of England's Queen Victoria’s (1837–1901). Artistically it has to do with prudish, often hypocritical, thought and manner as reflected in art from that period--somewhat the British equivalent of French Academic Art.
Academic--a conservative style of art promoted by an official art school of higher learning such as the French Academie des Beaux Arts during the 18th and 19th-centuries.
Post-Impressionism--can be roughly dated from 1886 to 1905 though the term was not coined until around 1910. It was applied to the reaction against the naturalistic depiction of light and color in Impressionism. The movement was led by Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, and Georges Seurat, each with his own, distinctive style, but united by their interest in expressing emotional and psychological responses through bold colors and expressive, and/or symbolic images.
Pictorialism--was an international style of photography in the late 19th and early 20th-centuries, involving the creation of art tableaus and photographs composed of multiple prints or manipulated negatives, in an effort to promote photography as an artistic medium on par with painting.
Neo-Impressionism--a term applied to an avant-garde art movement that flourished principally in France from 1886 to 1906. It began with Seurat's Pointillism, and the renouncing of the spontaneity of Impressionism in favor of a measured painting technique grounded in science and the study of optics.
Fauvism--the style of painting practiced by les Fauves (French for “wild beasts”) in the early (pre-WW I) era characterized by the work of Henri Matisse and André Derain, emphasizing strong, vibrant color and bold brushstrokes over realistic or representational qualities.
Suprematism--was a term coined by Russian artist Kazimir Malevich in 1915 to describe a style of painting conforming to his belief that art expressed in the simplest geometric forms and dynamic compositions was supreme over earlier forms of representational art.
Art Nouveau--A decorative style of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that flourished principally in Europe influencing painting, sculpture, architecture, the decorative arts, and graphic design. It is characterized by sinuous, asymmetrical lines based on organic forms.

The Chrysler Building,
New York City
Art Deco-- is a style of visual arts, architecture and design that first appeared in France just before World War I. It was a blending of many different styles and motifs, sometimes contradictory, united by a desire to appear sleek and modern.
Arts and Crafts--was an Informal movement in architecture and the decorative arts emphasizing the unity of the arts and the experience of the individual craftsperson, in the "do-it-yourself" construction of the work itself.
Automatism--the process of creating art without conscious thought. The Surrealists later applied this to techniques of spontaneous writing, drawing, and painting.
Constructivism--was developed by the Russian avant-garde at the time of the October Revolution of 1917, in an attempt to make art universally under-standable and essential to everyday life.
Dada--was an artistic and literary movement that grew out of dissatisfaction with traditional social val-ues and conventional artistic practices during the war, which sought to expose accepted and often repressive conventions of order and logic by shocking people into self-awareness.

De Stijl--refers to “the style” a Dutch term for a group of artists and architects whose style is characterized by the use of primary colors, rectangular shapes, and asymmetrical compositions. This was another movement which was a direct response to the destructive events of World War I. Its members were naïve enough to believed that developing a new artistic style was a means of creating a new harmonic order. WW II proved otherwise.
Der Blaue Reiter--(The Blue Rider) was an artist group active in Munich, Germany, from 1911 to 1914. They were closely associated with the development of Expressionism. The group’s aim was to express their own inner desires in a variety of forms, rather than to strive for a unified style or theme. (Quite the opposite of De Stijl.)
Die Brücke--(the Bridge) was yet another artist group, this one active in Dresden, Germany, from 1905 to 1913. They were likewise closely associated with the development of Expressionism having to do with the distortion of reality and expressive use of color in response to the turmoil of modern urban society.
Neue Sachlichkeit--(New Objectivity) was a style of art that was developed in the 1920s in Germany by artists such as Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, and George Grosz. It was often satirical in nature, applying a critical eye to contemporary taste of postwar German society. The style directly challenged the traditions of the art academies.

Surrealism--was a literary, intellectual, and artistic movement begun in Paris around 1924 which also grew out of dissatisfaction with traditional social values and artistic practices after World War I. Surrealism remained active through World War II. Influenced by the writings of psychologist, Sigmund Freud, Surrealists were led by André Breton, their interests being in the irrational, unconscious mind as it moved beyond the constraints of the rational world.
School of Paris--was a loosely defined, somewhat all-inclusionary group of international artists living and working in Paris from 1900 until about 1940, practicing a diversity of new styles and techniques to such traditional subjects as portraiture, figure studies, landscapes, cityscapes, and still lifes. Among the artistic movements associated with the School of Paris are Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism, and Symbolism.
International Style--an architecture that appeared from 1932 to 1960 which favored boxy structures, lack of decoration, and the use of materials such as steel, concrete, and glass.
The New York School--was an informal group of American poets, painters, dancers, and musicians active in the 1950s and 1960s in New York City. They drew inspiration from Surrealism and contemporary avant-garde art movements, such as action painting, Abstract Expressionism, jazz, improvisational theater, and experimental music.
Postmodern--describes both an era and a broad movement that developed in the mid to late 20th century across philosophy, the arts, architecture, and criticism which marked a departure from Modernism. It asserts that knowledge and truth are the product of unique systems of social, historical, and political discourse and interpretation. (There's much more to it than that, but for the sake of brevity...)


Aesthetics--the characteristics by which we discern beauty or good taste as to the visual arts.
Biomorphic--is a term referring to abstract forms or images that evoke associations with living forms such as plants and the human body.
Canon--is a group of artistic, literary, or musical works that are generally accepted as representing a field of artistic pursuit.
Classicism--refers to the principles embodied in the styles, theories, or philosophies of ancient Greek and Roman art.
Cultural icon--is a person, symbol, object, or place that is widely recognized as being culturally significant to a large group of people.
Existentialism--is a philosophical attitude emerging from the early 20th-century, associated especially with Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir, which stresses the free will of the individual in determining his or her relationship to the external world.
Iconic--has to do with the character of an important and enduring symbol of great attention and devotion.
Iconoclasm--is The doctrine or practice of attacking settled beliefs or institutions.
Iconography--refers to any subject matter in the visual arts, adhering to particular conventions of artistic representation, and/or imbued with symbolic meanings.
Metaphysical--is the transcending of physical matter or the laws of nature having to do with the branch of philosophy that studies that fundamental nature of being and knowing.
Paranoiac critical method--is a creative process emerging from the psychological methods developed by Surrealist artist, Salvador Dalí, in the 1930s, for the exploration of the creative potential of dream imagery and subconscious thoughts.
Social construct--is a concept or practice that doesn’t exist innately in the world but is instead created by society.
Sublime--refers to that which is awe-inspiring or worthy of reverence. In philosophy, literature, and the arts, the sublime refers to a quality of greatness that is beyond all calculation.


Appropriation--is the intentional borrowing, copying, and alteration of preexisting images and objects.
Artifice--Deception or trickery as to art or its creation.
Magic lantern--was an apparatus used to project an image, usually onto a screen or canvas in order to transfer an image. It was in use from the 17th to the early 20th century as a precursor of the modern slide projector.
Muse--is a guiding spirit that is thought to inspire artists as source of genius or inspiration.
Papier-collé--French for “glued paper,” a collage technique using cut-and-pasted papers.
Papier-mâché--French for “chewed-up paper,” is a technique for creating sculpture, from pulped or pasted paper and binders such as glue or plaster.
Vernacular photography--refers to Images by amateur photographers of everyday life and subjects, commonly in the form of snapshots. The term is often used to distinguish everyday photography from fine art photography.
Vignette---is a brief, evocative description, account, or depiction of an intimate visual moment.
Wet-collodion--was a photographic process invented in 1848 in which a glass plate, coated with light-sensitive collodion emulsion, is placed in a camera, exposed, developed, and varnished for protection before being used to create prints.


Curator--is a person whose job it is to research and manage an art collection, organize exhibitions, and thereby make the art seen on display more understandable in a broader context.
Exquisite Corpse--is a fun game to try at your next party with your arty friends. Each participant takes turns writing or drawing on a sheet of paper, which is then folded and passed to the next player for a further contribution. The game gained popularity in artistic circles during the 1920s, when it was adopted as a technique by artists of the Surrealist movement.
Manifesto--is a public declaration, often pol-itical in nature, but also having to do with an art philosophy covering a groups principles, beliefs, and intended courses of action.

There are probably dozens more words and phrases I could and should include, but look at the length of this sucker! If you've made it this far you'll know this is one of the longest pieces I've ever written. I hope I've not strayed too far from my original intention of providing both those struggling with art speak and those fluent in the language with usable terms having to do with thinking and sounding like artists.


  1. Vacabulary? Am I missing an inside joke from your book or something?

  2. These are simply words and phrases that I've used in writing from time to time which I thought might have gone undefined, misunderstood, or misconstrued. Some are pretty straight-forward, while others have meanings different in an art context than what they do otherwise.

  3. Oops--I missed it TWICE!
    The spellchecker doesn't work for headlines. Thanks for being persistent. I've corrected it.