About this term
Source: Oxford University Press
Geographic variation in an artistic style or tradition. Such styles and traditions—and even the production of a single artist over time—exhibit usually both chronological and geographic variations. In the study of prehistoric, Bronze Age and early medieval European arts, for example, distinctions are commonly drawn between ‘Western’ and ‘Central’ European art, for the period before the Roman empire, and between Mediterranean (or Roman imperial) and ‘Northern’ arts for subsequent periods. Some artefact types—for example, figurines, coins or decorated metalwork—may be broadly continuous across regional boundaries. On close inspection, however, the boundaries may not be hard and fast and probably change with time; drawing the boundaries initially helps the art historian coordinate artistic evidence with the parallel histories of language, ethnicity or politics.
Although many artistic ‘regions’ simply reflect the geographical or spatial distance of artistic production from the presumed location (or locations) of its emergence and primary development, regional styles or ‘regionalisms’ specifically tend to appear because artists at all locations of production—either ‘centres’ or ‘peripheries’, and even within ‘centres’ themselves—must work in some ways with locally available resources and under some of the constraints of the local economy and culture. This culture may be as small in scale as the street life of a single quartier of a city or as large in scale as the catchment area of a major river like the Nile, or the distribution of a language or intermarrying population. Thus even an imperial style, working towards a homogeneous expression, might have regional variants simply because imperial artisans working in provincial locations depended in part on local raw materials. The historical map of regional artistic production strongly reflects the relative qualities of local climates and environments, the availability of resources in material or cash, transportation routes and so forth. In addition, regionalisms reflect social and cultural differences. In order to communicate effectively in a local setting, even an imperial artist might adopt particular techniques or motifs known to be historically meaningful in that setting. The existing artistic language of the setting, for example its monuments or established networks of workshops and patrons, will also influence the mediation of styles from one location to another, whether this should be understood as the translation of national into regional manners or not. In sum, although the characteristics of artistic regions may be quite complex—several regions of different scale could be nested within one another—they can ordinarily be explained in terms of the economic, political and social geography of the area. Artistic regions and regionalisms should here be conceived as the consequence of socio-economic differentiation.
However, in some cases artistic production specifically produced or promoted forms of social difference that would not otherwise exist or would have existed in another form. For example artists working in a regional setting (and any location can be so defined) may develop specifically local procedures in order to preserve a distinctive regional tradition, assert a regional point of view or balance dominating national, classic, colonizing or cosmopolitan arts. Such ‘regionalism’ must be understood not only in terms of the socio-economic geography of a region as such but also in terms of transregional relations and conflicts. Generally these relations may be exhibited in many departments of cultural life; for example, a regional cinema may develop in close interaction with a regional press and in competition with a national media system. In art history, regionalism has been understood as a relatively deliberate effort, by regional producers, to develop the characteristics of distinctively local artistic interests.
Artistic differences across spatial boundaries may or may not mark the existence of regionalism in the strongest sense. The use of national flags or coinage clearly demarcates individual polities or ethnicities that are regionally located. However, many artistic regions were probably denoted as such only with hindsight by a society or its historians. Despite the possibility that regionalism may be noted and exploited as a self-conscious phenomenon, the fundamental cause of regionalism in art is the inherent variability of production from one area to another. Art historians, needless to say, depend on economic historians, social geographers, anthropologists and others for adequate delineations of regions while making their own contributions to this project.
From Grove Art Online