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How do artists depict emotion in art?

In the early 20th Century, there developed an art movement called "Expressionism," in which the artist was more interested in expressing an emotional experience and less focused on depicting realism. The art work could be a record of what the artist was feeling at the time of making it, and it could also bring about emotional reactions in the viewer.

In a previous investigation, we took a look at art by Matisse, Picasso, Lichtenstein, Chagall and others to see how these modern masters showed emotion in their art. We've decided to revisit this issue, and to take a look at a different group of artists and see what approaches they've taken in order to depict emotion in their art. One thing that we're seeing more this time is the way the artists have made the subject's hands an integral part of the expression of the emotion. Let's take a look at a few examples below.

Here's two art works that both depict sadness ... what I find interesting by the painting at left, by David Alfaro Siqueiros, is that he's able to convey emotion without even seeing the person's face. The placement of the hands and the lines defining the knuckles sends the message that this person is fighting back tears. Below right we have Vik Muniz's reinterpretation of Picasso's famous "Weeping Woman," but this image is a photograph of piles of pigment laid out to mimic the original. She also has a hand up to her face, and her eyebrows arching up helps convey her emotional state.

The Sob, a painting by Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros
The Sob, 1939, by David Alfaro Siqueiros
Vik Muniz interpretation of Pablo Picasso's painting The Weeping Woman
Weeping Woman, After Pablo Picasso, by Vik Muniz

Here's a fantastic painting showing absolute fear: it's a self-portrait by Dutch artist Pieter Van Laer from 1638. He's screaming out in terror as he sees the approach of the devil, as depicted by the monster-like hands reaching for him from the right side.

painting by Pieter Van Laer, a self portrait in fear of the devil

Here's a couple more ... do you agree with me that the painting below left also depicts fear? Is it because of the extra big, extra round eyes, or the teeth that might seem to be chattering? And the artist below right went ahead and labeled the emotion for his art: shame! The subject's hands are up covering his or her face just like the hands in Siqueros' painting, but in this case they're covering the face in shame rather than covering the eyes in sadness.

painting by unknown artist as seen at the 2011 Armory Show in NYC
Painting by unidentified artist at the 2011 Armory Show in NYC
Shame May Be Fatal, by unidentified artist at 2011 Armory Show in NYC
Shame May Be Fatal, by unidentified artist at the 2011 Armory Show

Here's a challenging picture for you to interpret, what emotion do you feel from looking at this painting? Is it anger, as the hand crumples some paper in a moment of disgust? Or is it sadness, as a hand clutches a used Kleenex? What do you think? (this painting is also by an unidentified artist at the 2011 Armory Show)

painting by unknown artist as seen at the 2011 Armory Show in NYC

If you have any favorite "emotional" artworks, or if you've created some art that shows emotion, please share it with us. If it's your own original work, we can add it to our viewer-submitted art gallery.

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Salvador Dali at Artsology Artsology offers free online games about the arts, and delivers investigations into topics in the visual arts, music, and literature. Artsology is a good resource for fun learning about the arts for people of all ages and is enjoyed by students, homeschoolers, and adults. Follow us on Twitter or become a fan of our Facebook page.Miles Davis at Artsology

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