Why does it look that way?

Have you ever been to a museum and found yourself totally captivated by Greco-Roman sculptures? Out of a block of marble, a craftsman chiseled out the very human shapes of both gods and mortals. Millennia later, European artists would rediscover these ancient sculpting traditions and create their own grand works. Whatever the media, the underlying philosophical themes in these great European works was something called Renaissance Humanism. It’s a pretty broad idea, but at the end of the day these humanists were absolutely obsessed with ancient values from education, philosophy, and especially visual art.

Back to our museum.We’ve checked out the art from the ancient Mediterranean, now let’s go and explore some sculptures and paintings from Renaissance Europe. It looks as if the artists didn’t miss a single beat! The artistic depictions of these people are highly idealized (just look at those muscles), but they are still very real. This takes an immense amount of skill, and if you didn’t know better you’d think this was always the standard. That in order for art to be good, it had to look like this… and any other artists producing works that didn’t possess these qualities simply weren’t talented enough. Unfortunately, this position was held for a long time. Art of peoples in Africa and Oceania and the Americas were thought primitive and inferior to works of European Art.

But slow it down! Today, art historians recognize that this simply isn’t true. See, European art is the exception, not the standard (but that doesn’t make it any less beautiful!). Up until the Renaissance art was never made for consumption by itself. And the idea of going to a gallery and buy a piece of art off of the wall is still pretty new. Art was strictly commissioned by the ruling class and almost always served some kind of function, oftentimes religious. And that went for Europeans, too. During the medieval period, art was highly abstract. Each seemingly “exaggerated” or “poorly modeled” feature was actually there for a reason. Take a look at the video below as two art historians explain how cultural and religious expectations shape how art is created.

If there’s anything you take away, it’s that abstraction is neither arbitrary nor a sign of the artist’s’ lack of skills.

Let’s take a look at some art south of the Mediterranean. Specifically… masks!

Masks have a long history in the artistic traditions of African peoples, but you can’t lump them all together in the same category. The types of masks— their function and material— may vary among different ethnic groups. Let’s take a look at a mask from the Dan people of what is today Liberia.

These masks, obviously don’t try to capture the essence of a human face. Features are exaggerated to heighten the meaning behind them. Look at this mask, called a “dean gle”. These masks captured the features of ideal beauty. An oval shaped face with narrow eyes was what they considered the be the most beauteous, and this mask conveys that very well.

A Dean Gle Mask in the Brooklyn Museum

A Dean Gle Mask in the Brooklyn Museum

Contrast it with the “bu gle” mask.

A bu gle mask

A bu gle mask


If your first thought was “boo!”, you aren’t far from the mark. These masks feature wildly exaggerated facial features, bordering on grotesque. They were meant to be frightening. Often times when you see masks, they were worn during ceremonies— it they were frightening, they were meant to chase away evil spirits. European art has an analogue for this— gargoyles! You can find them on the side of old cathedrals, meant to frighten away devils, all while performing the function of diverting rainwater from the roof!