Sarah Finch
AP Art History
Mr. Bayliss
June 2008



Intentional Exaggeration and Distortion of the Human Form
The Artist's Motivation Behind the Purposeful Warping, Twisting, and Contorting of the Human Anatomy


The human form has been represented is various ways throughout art history. While some periods strove for intense naturalism, others disregarded such strict accuracy to the human form, oftentimes intentionally. Though distortion and exaggeration of the human form with purposeful intent is most known in modern artwork, there are examples throughout all of history. It can be hard to tell exactly what is intentionally exaggerated or distorted, but there are usually distinct clues about a work that if viewed contextually can reveal whether it was a simple anatomical error or purposefully placed in a piece for a specific reason. Understanding why a piece was created and what it attempts to convey (if it does at all) is the simple key. If the human form is exaggerated intentionally, why was it exaggerated? This driving force is a central part of the work, often tied intrinsically to many of its artistic elements.
A common reason for exaggeration or distortion of the human form is to convey information. This tends to be more common in older periods of art history. Whether it’s to show everyday life, ceremonies, or people’s status will affect a piece differently, but they stem from a common point of being informative, often with a narrative of some sort.
Scientific exploration of the human body is another reason for distortion and exaggeration. Whether it is to better the artist or viewer’s understanding of the human body, or to push the physical limits of naturalism, scientific exploration is common through many periods of art history, from the Greeks to modern day.
Yet sometimes distorting the human form elicits reactions of a more base and less intellectual genre. Exaggeration can be utilized for emotional impact of various degrees, and is one of the most effective ways of doing so. Color scheme, intense contrast in value, and composition can all add to a piece’s emotional atmosphere, but a twisted and contorted human figure can contend on its own without these elements and still receive an intense emotional response.
A more obvious reason for distortion or exaggeration that is ever prevalent in the everyday world, yet often overlooked in the magazine covers that it is blatantly used in is simple aestheticism. To make something appear more beautiful by ignoring the reality of the human form and imposing modifications which adhere to society or the artist’s conception of beauty is extremely common in art. Idealization is common, even when not intentional.
Yet perhaps the most ambiguous reason is the more modern of them: just to do so. Distorting the human form simply for the sake of it is even ambiguous in how much of a real reason it even is, yet surely any modern artist would argue in its favor. The fact that one can exaggerate the figure is reason enough to do it.
Regardless of the reason, distorted and exaggerated pieces are often surprisingly eloquent, or at least hard not to look at. Many of the most popular and recognizable artworks throughout the world including the human form are distorted and exaggerated, even if only slightly so, but what is truly the most fascinating about these pieces is how even the most minute distortion or exaggeration can add to the whole of a piece where super-realism and naturalism would simply fail.


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Ti Watching a Hippopotamus Hunt. Egypt, c. 2450-2350 BCE. Painted Limestone Relief.

The Egyptians had a much better understanding of anatomy and the human body than the average person would believe. When Egyptian artwork comes to mind, one thinks of masks of dead Pharaohs which all look eerily similar. Idealized forms and composite figures also spring to mind. Yet there are many examples of portraits of Egyptians which are extremely naturalistic. In fact, this stylization that people have come to attribute to Egypt is a way of conveying information to the viewer. Much of this is lost without the context, unfortunately.

This painted relief (found in Ti’s mastaba in Saqqara, Egypt) is a great example of how much information the way a human form is distorted can show. The small figures on the right and left sides of the boat are fishing with some sort of spears. These forms, while not completely accurate, are more naturalistically depicted. The largest figure on the boat is Ti. To the uninformed viewer it seems like he’s much larger than the other figures simply because of lack of skill. In reality it is due to Hieratical scale. The larger the figure in a piece, the higher their political or social station in life that is held by them. Also, the more stylized a figure is according to the Egyptian canon, the more important the person is. This is an efficient and simple way of conveying a lot of information in a single relief.




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Nefertiti. Egypt, c. 1353-1336 BCE. Painted Limestone.

Much of ancient Egyptian artwork looks very similar. This is only to be expected of a culture based around a religion whose focus was eternity. Yet the infamous Amarna period broke from its cultural bounds and new concepts of beauty and what was acceptable in art were put in place. This bust of Nefertiti (found in Amarna, Egypt) is one of the most well known and popular pieces of the Amarna period. It is very individualistic, especially when compared to earlier royal portraits. There is still idealization like that seen in the relief of Ti, but it is more naturalistic. The exaggeration of her neck, which is impossibly long, serves the purpose of accentuating Nefertiti's beauty with long graceful forms.




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Battle of the Ten Naked Men. Antonio Pollaiulo. Italy, 1465. Engraving.

This early Italian Renaissance work is a more unusual choice. Though it is not distorted, as well as highly accurate, it can be argued that the musculature is exaggerated. Detailed and delicate, Pollaiulo depicts the human musculature with almost too much detail. This work is an obvious scientific study of the human form, yet at the same time it also shows the beauty and power that the human body holds. Yet it looks staged, and even with its more true-to-life anatomy, the figures lack a naturalistic element. They are stiff forms.





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Pieta. Michelangelo Buonarroti. Italy, 1497-1500. Marble.


Michelangelo's famous pieta, housed in St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican, is another example much like Pollaiulo's. The work stands at 174 cm, or about 5'7". Individually, the figures of Jesus and Mary would be extremely accurate, albeit with some lengthened limbs and large appendages as was Michelangelo's personal style. However, together their proportions are extremely off. The gargantuan figure of Mary cradles the abnormally small Jesus in her arms. Michelangelo, a master at his craft, would not have slipped up and made such a foolish mistake. Clearly Mary's figure is exaggerated purposefully. Particularly this is to heighten the emotional appeal of this piece. Unlike many pietas it is not horrific and melodramatic, but serene and calming. Mary gazes at her son with heavy lidded eyes. While there is a mournful element to the work, there is serenity. Mary is at peace with her son's death, portraying the strong biblical mother figure beautifully. Her exaggerated form only helps accentuate her care and stability.




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Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Il Parmigianino. Italy, c. 1423-24. Oil.

Parmigianino was a famed Italian painter who helped pioneer the Mannerists. Like most artists of the Renaissance, he was interested in the human body in a scientific and aesthetic way. In this self portrait, he paints everything extremely accurately. His hand is clearly exaggerated, but this is due to the convex mirror that he looked at himself in. The modeling of the hand is realistically distorted to look exactly like how it would in the mirror. Even the canvas itself is circular, further emulating the mirror shape. Obviously it is distorted intentionally as a scientific study using a more unusual reflective surface. Also this work is a bit of a show off piece for Parmigianino. Not only does he look like a wealthy, attractive, and even smug young man, but he is flaunting his skill of both observation and of painting. The piece may also allude to the common Renaissance symbolism of convex mirrors being a metaphorical "Eye of God". In this case, Parmigianino is the one looking out from this Eye of God, which depicts him as irreverently confident in his abilities.



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Odalisque. Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. France, 1814. Oil.

Ingres's sensual Odalisques were immensely popular at the time of their creation, regardless of the heavy criticism from many in the art world. The graceful elongation of the figure and ambiguous posing of the legs are reminiscent of Mannerism, but there are aspects of neoclassicism present as well. Overall the piece is an odd, yet pleasing, blend of styles and influences. The exaggeration here is minimal, but extremely effective. The curved, warm, relaxed form of the woman's body is elongated to make her look languid and graceful.




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The Kiss. Gustav Klimt. Austria, 1907-8. Oil and gold leaf on canvas.

Highly influenced by Byzantine artwork, Klimt distorts not on the human figures, but the entire picture. He flattens space and uses large intricately designed clothing to cover much of both figures, giving them a paradoxical look of being extremely awkward as well as embracing lovingly. There are many different interpretations of this piece. Among them are that is merely a meeting between two happy lovers and their intimate kiss; The man kisses the woman who turns her head away from him, aloof to his emotions towards her; It is an allegory for man controlling women in society. Because it is modern art, technically any interpretation (or all) could be true. The distortions of the human form add to this ambiguity. The figures look awkward, with oddly twisted necks and hands bent impossibly. Is this to convey information about the couple's relationship or it it simply an aesthetic taste? Either way, the distorted forms certainly add to this beautifully rendered piece of art.




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Skulls. Robert Lazzarini. 2000 Bone, resin, and pigment.

Robert Lazzarini's skulls in distorted space are mind boggling. Inspired by the skull in Hans Holbein the Younger's work, The Ambassadors, this piece is an amazing scientific study of a warped human skull. They are disturbing to see; the mind cannot focus on them too hard without feeling dizzy. Yet they are not only scientific pieces through anatomy, but through psychology. These pieces serve as memento mori, a reminder of human mortality. This distorted skull is intriguing, disturbing, and even beautiful in subject and content.




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