Distortion in figurative art

July 10, 2009

Robert Genn

Yesterday, Edward Vincent of New South Wales, Australia, wrote: "I'm attracted 
to a style of painting based on exaggerating elements of the human form. My 
problem is differentiating between artistic exaggeration of elements (head, 
eyes, limbs, etc.) and turning it into caricature. Where is the boundary? The 
Australian painter Brett Whiteley was known and respected for this effect. 
Where does serious artistic insight cross over to comical distortion?"

Thanks, Edward. There are folks who think Whiteley's work slipped long ago 
into ridiculous caricature, but his international sales in the millions 
might refute that notion. Caricature is in the eye of the beholder. We've put 
a panel of Whiteley's work at the top of the current clickback.

It's a good question. If art is what is to be seen, rather than what is seen, 
and standard ideas of taste are of little concern, then any amount of 
distortion should be okay. Realists might argue distortion is a safe harbour 
for folks who know they couldn't get it right if they tried. On the other hand, 
getting it right is no trouble for many of us, but we still prefer to redesign 
things as we see fit. Doubters might be suspicious of the truth in that last 

The question is--How does distortion suit my purpose? Are distorted bodies 
and contorted faces going to advance the composition or the creative 
statement, or is it just a freakish, secondhand device to titillate the 
artistically confused?

Minor modification has always been with us. A good example is the lengthening 
of fingers and necks in the work of John Singer Sargent. Another is the Alfred 
Munnings convention of lengthening horses' legs. The purpose of these two and 
many others is simply to add a bit of elegance. When the purpose is simply 
shock and awe, one might consider running up the red flags.

I'm a believer in moderation in all things, including moderation. This means 
weighing in on the side of taste, whatever that is. There is really good 
distortion and there is really bad distortion, and less is often more. These 
are my principles, and if you don't like them, I'm willing to change.

Best regards,


PS: "Art should astonish, transmute, transfix. One must work at the tissue 
between truth and paranoia." (Brett Whiteley 1939-1999) "Believe it or not, I 
can actually draw." (Jean-Michel Basquiat 1960-1988)

Esoterica: Apart from the "can't draw properly" type of distortion, there are 
many ways the human figure can be purposely distorted. Here are a few: Wide 
angle lens (e.g., long legs, small head); Telephoto lens (foreshortening--see 
Sistine Chapel ceiling); Beautification (see beauty); Plumpification (outsized 
cooks standing in a bathtub); Anorexization (see Giocometti); Enlargement, 
reduction or extension of physical features (eyes, glutes, musculature, etc.); 
Uglification (see ugly). Some distortions are well-understood illusions, while 
others require a kind of creative surgery. It's a free world.