Art terms explained
In this glossary we’ve explained some common art terms, and plan to add more terms and more detail. Use the Website feedback page to suggest additional terms to be explained.
Also known as the Paris Salon. The annual official art exhibition of France’s Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture (Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture) and later the Société des Artistes Français. It was the major art event of the year, originally held in a large room (or ‘salon’) in the Louvre. It became known as the ‘Old Salon’ after the establishment of the ‘New Salon’ by the Société Nationale des Beaux-Art in 1890. From the end of the 1800s, a number of alternative exhibitions to these conservative official Salons were established, including the innovative Salon d’Automne in 1903. The term salon, with a lowercase s, is now used more generally for an art exhibition, especially featuring the work of living artists. See also academic art.
a variety of stencil print, whereby a gauze screen, parts of which are masked or blocked out, is fitted tightly to a wooden frame and placed directly on top of a sheet of paper. Screenprinting ink is spread over the top of the screen and forced through it with a rubber-bladed tool called a squeegee. The image can be applied to the screen in a number of ways: a stencil of paper can be attached to the underside of the screen, or alternatively, areas may be painted out on the screen with a liquid that sets and blocks the ink from passing through it. ‘Photostencils’ allow the artist to incorporate photographic images into the print.
a portrait an artist makes using himself or herself as its subject. It can be an exact likeness or an abstract collection of thoughts and feelings. Self-portraiture developed significantly in Europe from the late 15th and early 16th centuries. There are three main reasons for this: technical improvements in glassmaking, which allowed flat mirrors of a reasonable size to be manufactured; the perfection of oil painting as a technique, which allowed artists to capture the textures of human flesh; and the changing status of the artist, from artisan to member of the social and intellectual elite, making the individual artist a worthy subject for portraiture.
a technique of decoration in which a top layer (of paint or plaster, etc) is incised with a pattern to reveal a deeper layer of another colour.
the speed at which a camera shutter opens and closes the aperture to expose the film. A fast shutter speed will freeze the subject and a slow shutter speed will make it look blurred as the subject moves.
the artist locates a site and researches its history and its meaning in order to respond with an artwork. It can, therefore, be like land art in many respects.
in photography, a partial reversal of tones in an image caused by re-exposing a negative or positive to light during the development process. It can also be caused accidentally in the camera by extreme overexposure to a light source. Also called the ‘Sabattier effect’ after Armand Sabattier, who discovered the phenomenon in 1862.
literally ‘the style’ in Dutch. Name of both a group of Dutch artists, founded in 1917, and the influential avant-garde journal they published. Artists include Piet Mondrian (1872–1944) and Theo van Doesburg (1883–1931). See also neo-plasticism.
a picture of objects. Common still-life subjects include vessels (such as bowls, vases and bottles), food and flowers.
to represent an image in an artwork in a way that follows a particular artistic approach to create an effect, rather than naturally.
in art, the term can be traced back to ancient Greece and the belief that great artworks could ‘uplift the soul’. From the late 1700s, ‘the sublime’ was used to describe wild and expansive nature – or depictions of it – which inspired feelings of both terror and pleasure and evoked a sense of a higher order. This was distinguished from ‘the beautiful’, which had more formal qualities. More recently, the term has been used to describe the quasi-mystical qualities of some abstract expressionist works.
an abstract art movement founded by Russian artist Kasimir Malevich (1878–1935) in around 1913–15, based on basic geometric shapes (square, rectangle, circle, cross, triangle).
having the disorienting, hallucinatory quality of a dream or fantasy. See also surrealism.
an avant-garde movement, originating in France in the 1920s, which developed out of dada and was influenced by psychiatrist Sigmund Freud’s theory of the unconscious. Surrealist art sought to express the workings of the subconscious mind and is characterised by fantastic imagery and unexpected juxtapositions. Artists include Salvador Dalí (1904–1989), René Magritte (1889–1967), Max Ernst (1891–1976). See also surreal.
an exhibition that provides a comprehensive overview of a subject or of an artist’s work over an extended period. See also retrospective.
Sydney Camera Circle
a group of photographers formed in Sydney in 1916 by Harold Cazneaux (1878–1953) and others, who established the so-called ‘sunshine school’ of photography. Their style of pictorialism was concerned with the play of light, sunshine and shadow, and the attention to nature and the landscape, and had an affinity with the Heidelberg school of painters.
a form, image or subject representing a meaning other than the one with which it is usually associated. See also Symbolism.
with a capital S, refers to a movement in literature, visual arts and music that flourished at the end of the 19th century, particularly in France, in reaction to Impressionism and realism. In painting, copying a scene exactly was considered less expressive than evoking it through line, colour and light. Artists include Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824–1898), Odilon Redon (1840–1916), Edvard Munch (1863–1944). See also symbol.
a term used for the work of post-Impressionist artists such as Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) and Emile Bernard (1868–1941). A well-known description of synthetic painting was put forward by the artist Maurice Denis (1870–1943) in 1890: ‘Remember that a picture – before being a war-horse, a naked woman or some anecdote – is essentially a plane surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order’. See also post-Impressionism.