In relation to art the term form has two meanings: it can refer to the overall form taken by the work – its physical nature; or within a work of art it can refer to the element of shape among the various elements that make up a work

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  • David Bomberg, 'The Mud Bath' 1914
    David Bomberg
    The Mud Bath 1914
    Oil on canvas
    support: 1524 x 2242 mm
    frame: 1718 x 2427 x 70 mm
    Purchased 1964© Tate
  • Henry Moore OM, CH, 'Recumbent Figure' 1938
    Henry Moore OM, CH
    Recumbent Figure 1938
    Green Hornton stone
    object: 889 x 1327 x 737 mm, 520 kg
    Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1939© The Henry Moore Foundation. This image must not be reproduced or altered without prior consent from the Henry Moore Foundation.
  • William Blake, 'The Good and Evil Angels' 1795/?circa 1805
    William Blake
    The Good and Evil Angels 1795/?circa 1805
    Colour print finished in ink and watercolour on paper
    support: 445 x 594 mm
    Presented by W. Graham Robertson 1939

Painting for example consists of the elements of line, colour, texture, space, scale, and format as well as form. Sculpture consists almost exclusively of form. Until the emergence of modern art, when colour became its rival, form was the most important element in painting and was based above all on the human body.

In treating or creating form in art the artist aims to modify natural appearances in order to make a new form that is expressive, that is, conveys some sensation or meaning in itself. In modern art the idea grew that form could be expressive even if largely or completely divorced from appearances. In 1914 the critic Clive Bell coined the term ‘significant form’ to describe this (see formalism). The idea played an important part in the development of abstract art. In 1914 the British pioneer abstract painter David Bomberg wrote: ‘I appeal to a sense of form – where I use naturalistic form I have stripped it of all irrelevant matter…My object is the construction of Pure Form.’ Even space can have form: the sculptor Henry Moore once remarked that ‘A hole can have as much shape meaning as a solid mass’ (See also biomorphic.)