Before the visit to Reading Museum I have to admit I was feeling very flat about the whole thing, having reached saturation point with museums as a child through school and family visits. When we got there it reminded me of the local museum in Sevenoaks where I grew up – there was a lot of local objects and history, all of which started to make me very curious about Reading as my adopted town. As a result I spent some time studying the signs showing what was on each floor, and I was excited to see they had so much, even including the Bayeux tapestry replica (which was very well lit so one could see it very well indeed). On reflection I was very pleasantly surprised that the Museum was of such a high standard.
Very soon into my visit I discovered that there was a Roman town nearby, which I hadn’t realised. I’ve always been interested in Roman towns since school visits to Lullingstone in Kent. Silchester was even better than even my perhaps rose-tinted childhood memories of Lullingstone. I was very keen to get back to my computer and its reading software as I was fascinated, but found the posters with their large blocks of text were not at all dyslexia friendly. If anything I felt a bit jealous somehow that Reading had all this wealth of archaeology, and my childhood interests had only a Roman town (and even that wasn’t complete as it had got burned down!)
The section about the “Scold’s bridle” was very interesting. This was where in the 17th or 18th century a nagging woman ran the risk of being convicted as a ‘scold’, for which her punishment might have been to wear a bridle such as the one in the Museum, which would both gag her and shame her in public. The coldness and indeed cruelty of this invention didn’t really shock me as it might have done previously, as I’ve seen evidence of similar unpleasant practices elsewhere, and the more horrific inventions of the human mind, such as Caltrops (anti –cavalry spikes) at Fort Amhurst in Kent. This did all get me thinking about how attitudes have changed, that such practices wouldn’t be acceptable in our society and would be seen as cruel. I think its probably because there were so many mortal hazards in daily life that perhaps individual life was not valued so highly, and religion acted as a salve to any sentiment there was about such things, since “it would all be alright in the end” (assuming you were a good little cog in their society). Thus I wonder if there was genuinely less empathy for others. I had previously thought that it was the Victorians who had brought this coldness into our social psyche, as they were really not very keen at all to talk about feelings – assuming therefore feelings were more open to discussion before, its somewhat remarkable that society seemed to care less about them. I’ve had my thoughts confirmed somewhat since this visit, as I’ve listened to a full audio book of Alexandre Dumas’ “Three Musketeers.” What I found remarkable was that his characters talk a lot about their feelings, very similar to how women might in modern times: it’s often like a Sex in the City episode. It seemed in those times men were “soppy” and women even more so. Anne of Austria spends her whole time crying. On the other hand Milady de Winter uses the emotions of her male peers against them. When captured she comments of her captor that his Puritan background is responsible for great coldness in the English society, whereas by contrast Catholic societies were much more flamboyant. It would seem in the end that this is at the root of it – a dogma that strives for inhuman standards of discipline as a reaction to a society with a great deal of inherent human suffering.
I particularly liked the model of the town at the museum – I enjoy models in a general way, usually because of the skill involved in scaling everything and getting the detail right. This model was intellectually satisfying in that one was able to get a good overview of the structures and layout. It was fascinating to see how much background work had gone into it in order to determine the detail. However what particularly inspired me was the way in which the figures were depicted in their daily routines in and around the city, in a way that worked with the scale but also explicitly provided further information about the individuals that wouldn’t otherwise have been apparent. As a concept this was deceptively simple: one of those things that makes total sense when you’ve seen it, but you kick yourself that you didn’t think of it first.
What had been done was that all the people were represented by little pieces of wire with the heads and bodies painted in simple colour combinations. This enabled all desired types of citizen within the model to be clearly represented:
I left the museum feeling inspired to investigate how artists and designers can simplify human activities and attributes down to very simple forms.
I started thinking how an artist or designer might represent different quantities of people, which is often done in human geography using simple techniques like the following:
Combining techniques like the use of colour in the Silchester model can be powerful in combination with a simple idea such as the scaled stick man above, one could quite easily represent quantities and qualities. However it has limitations in some applications. For example, a subtle difference in values within a larger range (such as a fraction) may not be noticeable, however in most applications where models are used they are a visual aid to communication and not intended to be used as a scientific tool in their own right. Thus small differences are generally meaningless, aside from becoming impractical to represent. I feel the whole point of this technique is to create an abstract, to simplify rather than complicate.
Simplifying humanoid figures is nothing new: some cultures have been unable to draw realistically for thousands of years. For example the Egyptian wall paintings depict hundreds of people all looking the same, the only difference being what they are wearing and doing, and important people had name glyphs. In the Dark ages simplicity is famously seen in the Bayeux tapestry, where all the knights look the same: Normans and English alike. Harold is only known by his blue horse which symbolises his royal blood, or in his death scene by a name, but exactly which figure still isn’t certain.
Young children simplify the human into a few potato shaped objects, as this is all they can see from their height. On average from age 4 years and 4 months to 7 years and 9 months as their brain and height grow, their pictures increase in realism and start to tell stories. After this, they start looking critically at their own work and comparing it to others’, however in the past if the comparison was as about as simple as a child’s drawing the child would not develop their realism any further.
I feel the large reason for the simplification of the human body in drawings by adults was in part because of a lack of formalised observation of – and thus understanding about – human physiology, and also driven by the purpose that the art served for that society. In the time of the Greeks the depictions of the human form evolved from the formally posed, often cartoon-like figures (such as in Egyptian frescoes and sculptures) and were shown in more natural poses. In the culture of Ancient Greece, beauty in the human form and athletic prowess were admired and prized: self improvement of any sort was seen as bringing one closer to the perfection of a God. Thus their art depicted – often quite graphically – the human form engaged in all manner of physical activities. The acceptance of the human body as a beautiful object in its own right led to these illustrations appearing on every day objects. Where an artist attempted to represent the physical development of a renowned athlete, or the face of a pretty boy, they seem to have simply been attempting to show the literal physical reality of their subject – or perhaps an idealised version thereof – rather than as a complex metaphor. Contrasting with Greek society, in other cultures religion seems to have had a high degree of control over the subject matter, at times even dictating what may and may not be shown. Similarly I feel it was the church stifling scientific study of the human body that meant that artists were lacking in the understanding: I recently watched Galileo (1975, Joseph Losey with Topol in the lead role), which was something of an eye opener. Although after scientific revolutionaries paved the way – and the veil that had been stapled over artists perceptions was pushed back – this still tended to be limited in the range of human form that was depicted, be it what politely might be called “voluptuous” women with barely concealed modesty and potato-like tendencies, the male form limited to fat cherubs and if they were lucky the occasional saint in mid torture. I think this is well illustrated by drawing improving in the Renaissance with artists working in the High Renaissance, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s “Virgin of the Rocks” c. 1491-3 and Titian’s “Portrait of a Man” c. 1510. This follows a long period in Western culture of more figurative depictions of “God’s creation”, where for example the figure of Christ appears more like a miniature adult (e.g. Gentile da Fabriano, “Virgin and Child Enthroned” c.1408) :only a few years later Masaccio’s “Madonna and Child” c 1426 shows a much more recognisable infant form.
In the past some cultures were more interested the symbolism than the realism, where contemporary artist could freely choose either. Sometimes this choice will be made for reasons other than pure creativity, with influences including technical options and intended audience: for example the low detail and primary colours of a given cartoon style might lend itself to cheap replication through a variety of media, making it ideal for a marketing campaign. I’ve been most inspired by examples I’ve found that come more ‘from the heart’
I can’t believe a child came up with this painting, representing different people around the world as colours. It is along the lines of what I am trying to get at, simplifying people down, in this case to just colour blobs. However the extra twist here is the use of background colour and of negative words used as physical divisions. I felt this was a truly imaginative and inspirational not only in the obvious message it expresses, but in its design.
Here we see people represented as rocks. It is implicit that they are people by the fact that they are placed in a boat shaped object. They all look like a team of rowers and their Cox (being the larger one at the front). The artist however, intended this to be Christ on a fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee from the stories from the Bible. It’s interesting how people interpret abstract objects differently according to their differing beliefs and experiences. The brief for the competition that this piece won was the word “Re:Cycle” (sic) and this artist has taken some driftwood and pebbles found on the beach and created this object. I feel this is a wonderful interpretation of the word, because the objects used have already been shaped by the water, thus linking in to natural cycles of tides and erosion, all before the artist took it and shaped it further into an object with links to water. The people in this object are about as simple as one can get, yet in the context they take on significance, and the size difference and arrangement of the pebbles implies some significance of the larger pebble, and perhaps some idea of hierarchy. The juxtaposition of this arrangement of natural objects within a recognisably man-made representation of a man-made object takes this very abstract piece further and invites all sorts of connotations and reactions that will vary from individual to individual. For me this is what makes it more a work of art than a simple visual aid. I really liked the fact that there was enough depth to this piece that my own reaction differed to the Artists original inspiration, and again from the Judge of the competition or the journalist whose article I read about this.
The simplification of the human form persists into adulthood in the form of cartoons. These forms are not intended to accurately portray the human figure, typically the opposite, with political satire giving us cartoons where particular physical characteristics are noted and deliberately exaggerated, and the genre of heroic fantasy comics giving us characters with impossible musculature or proportion. Although there are many different genres in cartoons, within each one there are rules that the originating artist has devised that dictate the form of individual characters as well as providing building blocks for the entire style. This can easily be seen from the Simpsonizeme website where one can create a character “in the style”.
Linking from cartoons I then started thinking about children’s toys (perhaps because of the pervasive marketing links!) and how these depict human figures in a variety of ways. Toy figures seem to be made more simplistic and abstract for the younger child, and become increasingly more complex and detailed the older the target market, presumably because to hold interest there needs to more going on with the toy, both visually as well as in its functionality. I’ve always been fascinated with LEGO in this regard, as it is a toy that grows with the child and thus holds the interest. In LEGO the human figure is depicted using some very simple and – quite literally – interchangeable pieces. This clearly leads to a huge variety of possibilities just considering the human figures alone. As with cartoon characters, here we have some “rules” that impose strict limitations on the variety allowed, and quite literally we have the building blocks that allow us to put a figure together in a variety of ways. The phrase “building blocks” is a well used phrase applicable from a huge variety of contexts, as clearly it is a metaphor speaks to a wide audience Thus I felt I have found a common denominator that would speak to as many people as possible. Even if one had never seen LEGO before, it is quickly apparent how it works.
The LEGO mini figures come in a myriad of versions in LEGO’s own kits, from pirates and knights of the realm to space pilots and invading aliens with just the change of a head or body section. Of course the charm is that if you own multiple parts you can recombine them in virtually any way you like, if you happen to fancy re-enacting a joust with alien cowboys.
With the LEGO people they all look so similar that it makes you look for other ways to make them unique other than facial factors in order to build the character, for example clothes and make up. I like what the people at brickshelf.com have done, such as this “Alice Cooper”. It’s amazing what such a personality can be reduced down to, although clearly in this case we are dealing with a “stage persona” which itself has been stylised.
This almost never-ending wall of LEGO people is showing how many versions of the LEGO person are available using generic parts:
I was interested in how many combinations of LEGO models these pieces could make.
(9 x Wig and hat) x
(8 x Head) x
(5 x Body) x
(4 x Leg) x
= 1440 combinations from only these parts.
So using these LEGO combinations all can represent 1440 different people, and this is not even the whole range of LEGO parts. As above you can see that creating further combinations of these individuals can portray unique character.
I have been fascinated by how the human figure in art can vary so greatly across time, cultures and artists. What I would like to achieve is to portray the concept that all these sources embody. There is a quite spiritual message (if you are so inclined) and a fascinating concept that ultimately we are all made up of the same building blocks (of chemistry, of broad physical design) and yet we can all be unique. The scientific community regularly tell us with excitement how few genes we are away from being this or that animal.
LEGO is so ingrained in our society’s thinking from early childhood that we can easily understand the concept that we are made up of pieces, in the same way that a complete LEGO model is made up of simple components. I am interested to see if it is possible to meaningfully portray ordinary individuals using this technique. Will they need to be pigeon-holed in order for us to identify them? LEGO is very good a depicting “a cowboy” or “a pirate”, but can it be used to show us “a librarian” or “a student”.
I hope what I have achieved in my response is a simplistic representation of “the man in the street”, a caricature of an otherwise unremarkable person. As part of my method I have photographed strangers and invited people to react to these photographs, and suggest a “back story”. The intention was that this distilled a representative reaction to these individuals, and has introduced a fanciful element that I feel is in keeping with the medium. From these reactions I synthesised my totally fictional characters that I represented with unique LEGO figures. I think they’re fun – I hope people enjoy meeting them as much as I enjoyed making them.
Bibliography and references
Dr. Maureen Cox (1997) Drawings of People by the Under-5s, 1st Ed. The Falmer Press, ISBN 0-7507-0584-1
Alison Cole (1994) Renaissances (Eyewitness Guides), 1st Ed. Dorling Kindersley, ISBN 0-7513-6146-1
Rosa Maria Letts (1981) The Renaissance. – (Cambridge introduction to the history of art), 1st Ed. Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-23394-1
http://www.brickshelf.com/cgi-bin/gallery.cgi?f=93340 (14 March 2008)
http://us.factory.lego.com/pab/?warning=false (20 March 2008)
http://Nortiker.deviantart.com/art/Lego-People-Wall-65610142 (20 March 2008)
http://www.windgrove.com/ee/index.php/weblog/2004/08/ (24 March 2008)
http://www.maltwood.uvic.ca/cam/programs/what_peace_means.html (24 March 2008)
http://www.reasonablyclever.com/mm2/index.htm (2 April 2008)
http://simpsonizeme.com/ (26 May 2008)
Joseph Losey (1975) Galileo, Cinévision Ltée