Art jargon is highly nuanced. It can be hard to decipher the meaning of so many words, especially if you’re a native English speaker and the words come from a language other than your mother tongue. Add to that the fact that a lot of people see the world of art appreciation as inaccessible, elitist or snobby, and it’s easy to see how learning art words, terms and expressions can be a formidable task.
But art is truly one of the world’s universal languages, so it shouldn’t be hard to talk about! With a little primer on important art words and movements, you can be ready to talk about sculptures and sketches, paintings and pictures, and everything in between! Here are 10 of some of the world’s most popular art words from other languages and what they mean.
Art Words And Expressions From Around The World
chiaroscuro — this Italian word literally means “light-dark” (from chiaro, “light,” and oscuro, “dark”), and it refers to the balance and contrast between light and shadow in a work of art to convey a sense of movement and volume. It was a favorite stylistic device of Baroque artists of the late 16th and early 17th centuries like Caravaggio, who often recreated religious narratives with dramatic energy and heightened emotional tension.
Renaissance — this French word translates to “rebirth” (naissance just means “birth”) and refers to the post-medieval period in Europe, concentrated in the Italian Peninsula, that placed an emphasis on humanism and the resurgence of classical Greek philosophy and ideals. Some of its most famous leaders included Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.
Bauhaus — founded in Weimar, Germany and operating from 1919 to 1933, Bauhaus was perhaps one of the most influential modernist art schools of the 20th century, shaping the development of artistic style in Europe and the United States in the interwar period and onwards. Fusing art and the industrial design of manufacturing, the artists of the Bauhaus school sought to bring a sort of social and artistic relevance into an otherwise soulless aspect of functional creation.
Dada — founded in Switzerland in the throes of World War I and continuing in its immediate aftermath, the Dada movement (or “Dadaism”) highlighted the chaos, horrors and disillusionment of war by focusing on scattered, unconventional and nonsensical elements that conveyed the artists’ disgust with the existing sociopolitical order and how it gave rise to such catastrophic human conflict. The name’s etymology is unclear. Some claim it’s just nonsense syllables chosen at random, others say it comes from the French word for a child’s hobbyhorse (dada) and still others think it comes from two of the Romanian artists’ way of saying “yes, yes” (da, da) in their language.
De Stijl — also known as “Neoplasticism,” de Stijl (literally “The Style”) was a Dutch art movement of the early 20th century led by artists Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg. As a reaction to the highly decorative Art Deco movement and the horrors of World War I, de Stijl focused on basic geometric forms and solid, often primary colors meant to represent a more spiritualized, utopian view of art and the world, as well as to combine form and function effortlessly.
graffiti — this word has been adopted into English to refer to often informal (but sometimes very intentional), stylized street art typically spray-painted onto walls or other public surfaces. It comes from the plural of the Italian word graffito, which refers to a scribbling or scratch in a surface (and which is the diminutive form of the word graffio, “a scratch”). Since the 1970s, graffiti has become an integral part of urban and hip-hop culture, but it’s existed as a concept since at least the time of the ancient Romans.
Gutai — one of the most influential art movements of post-World War II Japan, this association of artists placed a heavy emphasis on individualism in response to the pre-war totalitarian regime. The Japanese word “gutai” translates to “concreteness,” and it focused on the physical connection between the human spirit and a whole range of materials. In response to the isolationism that had defined their nation’s position in the world, Gutai artists mastered cross-cultural networking, spreading their ideas across the globe.
memento mori — this term goes all the way back to get its name from the Latin of antiquity. This term, one of the most famous art words from Latin, translates to “remember you must die,” and it refers to motifs (in artwork, but also in life in general) that remind viewers of their own mortality and the ephemeral nature of life itself — items like skulls and hourglasses, for example.
Tropicália — this Brazilian art form emerged in the 1960s as a way to give contemporary art a Brazilian flair distinct from the heavily European cultural domination of the era. A movement that sought to shake up the status quo, it became a sort of rallying movement for the country’s progressives and rebels, and it touched all aspects of the artistic world, from visual arts to music to literature.
bodegón — the Spanish word for “still life,” this type of visual artwork — usually in painting form — gets its name from the Spanish word bodega, meaning “storeroom” or “tavern.” This genre of works — many of which were revolutionary in their time (around the early and mid-17th century) for their intense naturalism, displays compositions of inanimate objects — frequently depicts food and drink, jewelry, dishes, art supplies, flowers or other everyday items. The austerity of the bodegones is meant to convey a powerful moral message about the fleeting, sometimes tragic, nature of life.