Composition in art stands for an ordering of artistic elements in a unifying way that makes a final result effective. This may mean that a work of art is aesthetically satisfying, but often in modern and contemporary art this includes achieving additional goals such as being politically provoking, or disruptive of different visual or social tropes. The difficulty in defining composition comes from these sometimes mutually exclusive positions. Can a composition at the same time be visually pleasing while its conceptual potential remains undisturbed? It seems that such questions were obsolete in previous centuries when art served as a representational tool of different religious and social dogmas. Rules of symmetry and convention guided artisans, although today some of the best works from the past are considered to be the ones that disobeyed such rules. Modern and contemporary scene seems to preserve adherence to compositional rules, although contextual meanings surrounding it often affect the readings of such works. Minimalism of Barnett Newman ‘zips’ are a good example of how compositional simplicity can stand for complex ideas engaged with the problematic of the everyday. In order to better understand the importance of composition in art we look at its meaning, elements, and politics.
What is Composition in Art?
The term composition means ‘putting together’ or ‘the act of combining parts or elements to form a whole’, and through these explanations much can be concluded what composition in art stands for. It can be simply defined as the arrangement of visual elements according to the principles that were established in visual practices over the centuries. Although some of the principles changed with time, the careful and thought-out placement of elements plays an integral role in every successful composition, being that of visual arts, music or writing. Sometimes term composition is used interchangeably with other terms such as structure, ordering, or design. There are distinctions between conventional and unconventional compositions, and most of the conventional ones can be achieved with the techniques such as rule of thirds, rule of odds, rule of space and simplification, among others.
Rule of thirds is linked with the division of an image into thirds horizontally and vertically in order to avoid bisecting which is not very visually pleasing. This rule also helps in determining where the focal point should be placed in order to achieve a dynamic composition. Rule of odds relates to a number of subjects on an image, and reflects the idea that odd number of subjects is more interesting than an even number. Rule of space provides the contextual background for the represented topic and is often relative to spatial illusion. Simplification is another postulate that basically suggests that each image should contain only the necessary subjects as too many may distract the viewer from the depicted theme.
Elements of Composition
In order to organize visual components in an artwork, artists usually follow some of the compositional rules that would make the work more appealing or intriguing to the viewers. Composition gives layout and structure to each art piece, and also affects the way the subject is perceived and understood. It leads the eye of the observer through the image and emphasizes the focal point. In Western art there are some general elements of composition that throughout the centuries were the guiding points for artists in achieving successful visual presentation.
Balance provides a sense of equilibrium or dynamism depending on whether symmetrical, asymmetrical or radial balance is applied. Unity links all elements of composition together, but sometimes parts can be made to look out of place. Movement relates to a sense of motility achieved through the arrangements of objects that guide the viewer’s eyes, while rhythm is a more generalized ‘beat’ of an artwork. Focus is related to all the elements being arranged as to point to one spot, and if this element is not present the piece may seem to lack in unity and dynamics. Contrast and pattern are important as long as the motility and rhythm are concerned. They relate to dark/light and color contrasts, or repetition of lines, shapes or colors. Finally, proportion affects how things relate to one another regarding size, distance, and scale.
Politics of Composition
Although composition in art is defined through well-thought principles and techniques that follow some strict rules of observation, we should never forget the conceptual meanings hiding behind certain compositional choices. How world is represented in art? Even when we talk about multiple worlds, the ones created by artists or the real or metaphysical worlds that correspond with our beliefs or living realities, the modes of their compositional renderings are rarely or almost never cleared of politics. The compositional spaces in visual arts are inhabited by subjects, themes and motifs arranged in a way that infuse additional meanings, provoke, pacify or disturb our habitual iconographies, which translates them from pure visual into political expressions. It is almost impossible to find in the history of art works which compositional principles were not guided by some additional political reasons beside the aesthetic ones. Rancière’s explanation of politics uncannily resembles postulates described above. For him “politics exists when the figure of a specific subject is constituted, a supernumerary subject in relation to the calculated number of groups, places, and functions in a society.” Similarly, composition depends on a number of elements of which politics of representation is its constitutive element.
Compositional Symmetry of Classical Beauty and Duchamp’s Wheel
Starting with nature, symmetrical patterns seem to be influencing artists throughout history, and have been an important factor in shaping of our environments and societies. Beauty and symmetrical compositions seem to be traditionally linked, although never fully explained. Canon of beauty in classical antiquity constituted of symmetry found in nature and arts. Ideal divine world was in the Middle Ages also conceived as symmetrical, with portal compositions of many churches sculptured in this manner. Philosophers and modern artists tried to give their explanations of beauty found in symmetry, and they usually linked it with happiness. Arthur Schopenhauer explains how the contemplation of natural forms, which are regularly symmetrical, can be a tool of escaping the painful daily experiences.  Marcel Duchamp’s similarly talks about the effect the observation of his ready-made Bicycle Wheel produced in him: “To see that wheel turning was very soothing, very comforting, a sort of opening of the avenues onto other things than the material life of the everyday.” The beauty of the composition can be defined through the happiness he felt in observing it.
Disturbing Social Decorum and Serra’s Tilted Arc
Compositional choices do not always invoke beauty and harmony. More often, they seek to disturb the viewers in their sedimented positions and learned modes of observation. Particularly in modern and contemporary art such choices abound. While beauty and compositional symmetry seem to go hand in hand, so do the uneasy and unsettling effect of certain compositions, and catharsis, or revelation of certain social truths. Aristotle in his Poetics explains that tragedy as a dramatic form often stimulates negative emotions in the public, such as fear or pity, but this is not necessarily negative as such emotions are by the end of the play purged from the viewers, making them happier and healthier. The cathartic effect a disruptive performance can have, similarly translates to the effect of disruptive compositions in visual arts.
Going into the past we see how Caravaggio’s choice – in the paintings Crucifixion of St Peter and Madonna di Loreto – to put in focus the back side of a horse and dirty feet of a person crouching in the front, caused an uproar when they were made. The artist’s decision, however, is believed to be justified by the need to represent ‘real’ persons in religious compositions and to make them more relatable to ordinary people. While Caravaggio opened religious imagery to paupers, Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc was created with an idea to provoke reflection among the citizens of New York about the urban surroundings, restricted movement, and freedom. In the artist’s words “the viewer becomes aware of himself and of his movement through the plaza. As he moves, the sculpture changes. Contraction and expansion of the sculpture result from the viewer’s movement. Step by step the perception not only of the sculpture but of the entire environment changes.”However, the work that comprised of a single long unfinished plate of COR-TEN steel, 37 m long, and 3.7 m high positioned on the Foley Federal Plaza provoked a law suit. This simple compositional solution of placing a plate on a public square finished in dismantling of the sculpture, and its removal as numerous citizens and officials found it disruptive of their learned patterns of movement around the plaza.
The Importance of Composition and Its Principles
It is not an overstatement to say that every artwork has a good composition at its core. This does not necessarily translates into aesthetic terms, but it is often so. Besides being a ruling principle in ordering of elements of art into a unifying whole, composition also actively defines conceptual meanings behind each piece. Historical as well as modern examples given above showed us how compositional solutions affected the understanding of art, from linking it to abstract concepts such as beauty, to leading to social actions when an artwork interfered with habitual spatial movements of a group of people. Its significance is never defined solely through a single rule. A combination of historical as well as contemporary understandings affects how we perceive and value composition. Without it, we would hardly be able to talk about the artworks and art. In nature, structuring of forms adheres to certain rules of organization as a guiding norm of every creation, and art, defined from ancient times in relation to nature, follows the similar models in achieving visual unity.
Editors’ Tip: Composition in art
A painting’s technique and perspective may all be excellent, yet the painting will fail unless its composition succeeds. Composition is the harmonious arranging of the component parts of a work of art into a unified whole. Henry Poore examines the works of old masters and moderns in this book and uses these examples to explain the principles of compositions in art. All the paintings that the author analyzes are illustrated in the text-166 illustrations, including 9 in full colors. Thirty-two diagrams by the author accompany his textural discussion of such topics as the importance of balance, entrance and exit, circular observation, angular composition, composition with one or more units, and light and shade.
Rancière J., (2006), The Politics of Aesthetics, p.116.
Osborne H., (1986), Symmetry as an aesthetic factor, Computers & Mathematics with Applications, Vol. 12, Issues 1–2, Part B, p. 77.
Jacquette D.,(1996), Schopenhauer, Philosophy and the Arts, p.118.
Coffin T.A., Symbol of Beauty: Symmetry in Art and Nature, www.arthistoryarchive.com [December 21, 2016]
Gibbons A., (2016), Caravaggio In Rome: Violence, Art, Dirty Feet, writingcities.com [December 21, 2016]
Michalos C., (2007), Murdering Art: Destruction of Art Works and Artists’ Moral Rights, in: The Trials of Art, pp.173-193.