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. http://clicks.robertgenn.com/changing-titles.php 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 sentence. 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, Robert 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.