Anthropomorphic Art and Anthropomorphism Essay

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Anthropomorphic art

How are anthropomorphic characters used by visual artists as a metaphor for the human condition?

Simply stated, anthropomorphism is when non-human objects or beings are given the characteristics and personal traits of human beings. A common definition of this term is the "…. attribution of uniquely human characteristics and qualities to nonhuman beings, inanimate objects, or natural or supernatural phenomena" (Anthropomorphism) . The term anthropomorphism is derived from two group words which mean human and shape or form.

The art of anthropomorphism has a long history. As one commentator states,

The art of anthropomorphism is almost as old as image making. The practice certainly dates back to early Egyptian slaves who poked visual jabs at their respective masters on scraps of papyrus or pieces of stone, veiling and protecting themselves by substituting kindred animal characteristics for human ones (Heller).

The purpose of anthropomorphism in art and literature is usually to express some view or idea about the human condition or some aspect of society. It is often used as a means of satire. This paper will explore this subject and attempt to show how anthropomorphism functions in the works of three visual artists.

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Anthropomorphism can function on many different levels and in different contexts. It is often used in a symbolic sense and can refer human attributes and characteristics when applied to gods, animals as well as forces of nature and inanimate objects. For example, the wind can be given a human voice or shape to suggest power and to make a point about society or human life or society. It is also used as means or device in art to provide "… a window into the way in which humans perceive themselves" (Anthropomorphism).

Essay on Anthropomorphic Art & Anthropomorphism Assignment

In other words, anthropomorphism is a way of making the viewer or reader reflect on his or her humanity. Anthropomorphic art is capable of questioning and interrogating the norms and values of society. It is frequently used as a device in art, literature, and film to "…convey the author's message through a symbolic animal or object with human qualities. In technology and science, the behavior of machines and computers is sometimes described in terms of human behavior" ( Anthropomorphism: New World Encyclopedia).

As a device of style it has become well established in the literary by authors such as Beatrix Potter, Roald Dahl, and Lewis Carroll. In both the literary and visual arts anthropomorphism is often used in a narrative and contextual sense to make a statement about society or express a philosophical point-of-view about the human condition. This is very much the case in the graphic novels and illustrations of Art Speigleman, which will be discussed in detail in the first section of the paper.

2. Speigelman

Figure 1. Maus


Figure 2. Vladek and Anja Spiegelman try and make their way through Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II


The cartoons and graphic novels of by Art Spiegelman make extensive use of anthropomorphism in very specific and intentional way. Spiegelman is famous for his creation of Maus: A Survivor's Tale. This is a memoir in graphic form which tells the story of his father's struggle and efforts to survive the Nazi Holocaust. The graphically intensive work took Spiegelman thirteen years to complete. ( Art Spiegelman's MAUS: Working-Through the Trauma of the Holocaust). This novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize Special Award in 1992 ( Art Spiegelman's MAUS: Working-Through the Trauma of the Holocaust).

As can be seen from figure 1, the front page of the novel, Spiegelman makes use of anthropomorphic characters which also have a narrative function within the structure of the story. Animals represent or symbolize aspects such as national and ethnic traits and various types of human propensities. The mice in the above drawing are depicted as innocent creatures that represent the Jews who were hunted and persecuted by the German Nazis, represented by catlike figures. Context is obviously extremely important in these drawing. The Second World War and the Jewish Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis is the conceptual framework within which the illustrations function.

Another aspect that is symbolically clear in Speigelman's use of anthropomorphism is the uniformity of the characters, which is also evident in the style of the drawings. The following image from MAUS depicts the masses of mice in the concentration camps.

Figure three.

( Source:

In this detailed linear style a number of aspects become clear. The mice or Jews are depicted as a uniform and conformist mass of figures that seems to stretch into the distance. This serves a central purpose in the narrative structure and thematic context of this graphic novel. In the first instance we can interpret this uniform mass of figures as a statement about the mass persecution of the Jews because of their ethnic and religious identity. The Nazis made no distinctions and were intent on executing all the Jews. There is a horror in this way of thinking that does not allow for any individuality. The use of mice to represent the Jews in this case helps to emphasize the helpless horror of their situation.

These drawings could also be interpreted on another level which refers to general human condition. This relates to the way that conformity and uniformity strips people of the identity and individuality. In a sense the atrocities of the Holocaust were the result of a form of biased thinking which denied individuality and difference in life and which placed all individuals into specific groups or classes. This refers to the Nazi policy of racial purity and the concentration camps. However, what is interesting is that the graphic images in this book could also be interpreted in a modern context to refer to the way that the contemporary world is also dominated in many instances by biased and prejudicial thinking that promotes conformity. As one commentator succinctly notes; "Ultimately what the book is about is the commonality of human beings. it's crazy to divide things down along nationalistic or racial or religious lines..." (Art for Art's Sake:

Spiegelman Speaks on RAW's Past, Present and Future ).

In all of the above art works what stands out is the simplicity of style in the linear drawings. In figure three the mood of despair and entrapment is conveyed not only in the repetition of the faces of the mice but also in the lines and stripes of the uniforms that they wear. This effect is also enhanced by the use of simple colors which adds poignancy to the drama and tragedy of the situation. In terms of the human condition, Spiegelman makes use of anthropomorphism to expose the cruel and oppressive treatment of one human group by another.

3. John Tenniel

Sir John Tenniel was well-known as an illustrator and is possibly best known today from his cartoons and caricatures for Punch magazine. He is also renowned for his illustrations in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Tenniel used anthropomorphism and caricature to comment on human foibles and ultimately as a means of questioning and satirizing the society of the time. For example, he satirized nationalistic and patriotic concerns, such as the conflict and tension between England and Ireland. He achieves this by making use of animals and other graphic metaphors to express his views.

He created numerous cartoons and caricatures of political life and of members of parliament, depicting some members of government with vulture's heads and other anthropomorphic devices to satirize geed, incompetency and the abuse of power. The following illustration is a clear indication of the way that he represented the difficult and obstinate Irish land question by using the image of a bull to symbolize these qualities.

Figure 4.


Tenniel did not only use anthropomorphic devices in his art to satirize the political issues of the day but also used this technique to question and comment on larger issues such as war and international political affairs. The following drawing depicts his concern with the threat of war. The design of the Russian monster and the use of weapons as parts of its body are intended to satirize and critique. This is also aided by caricature and the simple but effective malevolent expression on its face.

Figure 5.

( Source:

However, he is best known for his exploration and humorous understanding of human foibles and eccentricities in the illustrations for Alice in Wonderland. For example, the wonderful rendering of the rabbit in the image below succeeds in capturing the manic eccentricity of human nature in the obsessive nature of the character. This is also true of the mad tea party ( figure 7) where we are given an insightful illustration of the central mood and context of the book.

Figure 6.


Figure 7.


He is also known for his meticulous attention to detail. This is evident in the fact that when he illustrated the first edition of Alice in Wonderland in 1865," the first print run of… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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How to Cite "Anthropomorphic Art and Anthropomorphism" Essay in a Bibliography:

APA Style

Anthropomorphic Art and Anthropomorphism.  (2009, September 13).  Retrieved August 4, 2020, from

MLA Format

"Anthropomorphic Art and Anthropomorphism."  13 September 2009.  Web.  4 August 2020. <>.

Chicago Style

"Anthropomorphic Art and Anthropomorphism."  September 13, 2009.  Accessed August 4, 2020.