Analytical frameworks are a tool for unpacking and examining an art work using different viewpoints. The VCE Art Study Design describes four frameworks – Formal, Personal, Cultural and Contemporary. When we use the Formal framework, we analyse how the artist has used the elements and principles of art to convey meanings or messages. We examine the use of style, materials and techniques. Using the Personal framework, we explore the artist’s personal situation – how their history, beliefs and influences may be evident in the art work. We can also think about the ways that our own experiences affect how we view the art work. The Cultural framework is the one we use when we are examining the social, cultural and historical factors that surround the artist and that are evident in the art work. When we discuss how current ideas or ways of thinking influence our view of an art work (whether it is a more recent work or one from long in the past) we are using the Contemporary framework. Using the Contemporary framework we also explore how contemporary materials, media and ideas affect our understanding of a work.
Following are examples of how the different frameworks can shape what is written about a particular art work.
In Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul, crossing the Alps at Great St. Bernard Pass, 20 May 1800
of 1803, a uniformed Napoleon sits comfortably astride a wild-eyed, rearing horse on a snow-covered mountainside, his bright red cape whipped by the wind. One hand firmly grips the reins while the other points skyward over the peaks. Under the barrel of the horse’s chest the figures of soldiers can be seen pushing equipment upward through the bleak landscape.
The strong use of diagonals gives the painting a sense of dynamism, the highest point of the red cape propelling the eye forward, mirroring the gesture of the mounted soldier and suggesting the direction and momentum of the attack. Wind rakes the horse’s mane and tail and sends the dark clouds sliding across the sky, suggesting the dynamic forces of nature harnessed by the invading army. Horse and rider are illuminated as if in divine affirmation of Napoleon’s power.
Amid the wind and movement, Napoleon’s expression is steady, his eyes focused and intense. The painting’s red, white and blue – the colours of the Republic – lend boldness to the image and mirror the tricolour flag that waves in the corner of the composition, emphasising the force of the nation personified in the heroic figure.
As a fervent supporter of the Revolution, David was captured by the charismatic power of Napoleon and the victories he brought the Republic. Although Napoleon’s proclamation of himself as Consul for life and then Emperor were in conflict with David’s Republican beliefs in democracy, liberty and equality, David believed in Napoleon as a saviour of France and benefited from many commissions to record the ceremonies and people of the new regime.
After meeting Napoleon, David is said to have spoken to his students of Napoleon’s appearance: ‘What a beautiful head he has! It is pure … beautiful like (the) antique.’1
In a statement that reveals something of David’s desire for recognition also, he said, ‘I shall slide into posterity in the shadow of my hero.’ 2
David’s personal artistic style developed from years spent studying in Italy. His compositions were clear, Classical and somewhat austere. Among his early works were many which drew on allegories from Classical history to comment on events and ideas of his own time, but he was among the first to mythologise contemporary events. His depiction of Napoleon crossing the Alps drew on his knowledge of Classical equestrian sculpture.