What is a habitat? A habitat is the home or environment where people, animals, fish and plants live. Our planet is also a habitat. It needs to be carefully looked after to preserve plants, animals and insects – as well as ourselves and future generations!
What does ‘home’ mean to you? The place where you live? Your family? The objects and things you surround yourself with that make you feel happy? Domestic interiors and scenes of family life are a popular subject in art.
Look at these two scenes of family life at home. What do the paintings tell you about these habitats and the families that live in them? How would you depict your home life?
Ordinary lives: coffee, a chip fryer and bed!
Edouard Vuillard was an impressionist painter. Although now impressionism might look a little bit tame, the impressionists were a radical movement at the end of the nineteenth century. They chose to draw and paint everyday scenes of people in their homes, at work and in bars and cafes. (At that time art was supposed to show classical heroes and historical and biblical subjects.)
Pierre Bonnard’s Coffee 1915 is a familiar domestic scene – even though it was painted over one hundred years ago. Someone is having a cup of coffee (at breakfast perhaps) and talking to their dog. Bonnard made lots of sketches for this painting, capturing the details of the room and planning the composition, working out what he will include and where everything will go.
One critic described their work as including:
every kind of food and drink, every utensil and implement, the usual plain furniture and even the babies’ nappies on the line. Everything but the kitchen sink – the kitchen sink too.
This comment led to these artists being known as the ‘Kitchen Sink Painters’.
What does your bedroom say about you? Like the Kitchen Sink Painters, Tracey Emin is interested in creating artworks that explore and reflect her life. Her installation My Bed 1998 recreates the mess and clutter of her room at a time when she felt her life was a mess.
My Bed provides us with a glimpse into the artist’s very personal habitat as well as a glimpse into her feelings and emotions.
In 1998 I had a complete, absolute breakdown, and I spent four days in bed; I was asleep and semi-unconscious. When I eventually did get out of bed, I had some water, went back, looked at the bedroom and couldn’t believe what I could see; this absolute mess and decay of my life.
Captured on camera
Photography is perfect way of capturing fleeting glimpses of human habitats and home life. In his series of Television Portraits Paul Graham shows people doing something very familiar – sitting or lounging on the sofa watching TV.
Wolfgang Tillmans chose the most humble and unlikely details of the human habitat for his series of domestic still lifes – including a pile of socks and clothes drying on a radiator! Captured on camera these boring details become somehow important.
Jeff Wall also often photographs apparently ordinary things. But by presenting them on a big scale, lit up by lightboxes, they look like scenes from a movie. A view from an Apartment 2004-5 shows an ordinary living room. An ironing board, a television set, piles of magazines and a pot of tea are amongst the objects of everyday life contained within it.
The room is dominated by the view from the window of an industrial cityscape. The minute detail of enclosed home life contrasts with the vast urban scene outside, a depiction of a broader human habitat – the city. The vertical and horizontal lines inside the apartment are cleverly echoed in the network of lines that make up the scene outside.
Making a point: narratives and messages
Home life isn’t always conventional or happy. Sarah Jones’s photographs show young women in interiors. What do the photographs suggest to you?
On one level these look like conventional pictures of upper middle-class homes. But the detached expressions of the girls and the contrast between their casual poses and the pristine interiors, create an unsettling effect. There is a mood of unhappiness and boredom.
Cathy Wilkes also creates unsettling domestic environments. These are suggested by hanging cloths and collections of objects from daily life. Mannequin figures inhabit these spaces. The habitats seem fragile and temporary. They suggest stories that are both mysterious and unhappy and reflect wider issues in society.
Richard Hamilton also uses the theme of human habitat to comment on society. His collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different? is a remake and update of an iconic pop art collage Hamilton made in 1956. The original collage is made from images taken mainly from American magazines. It uses humour and irony to comment on consumerism (people’s desire to buy lots of things). In the updated version he swapped the contents of the 1956 habitat for images relating to issues and themes that were high profile in the 1990s. These include the AIDS epidemic, hi-tech gadgets such as computers and microwaves, and fast food.
If you were creating a collage representing people’s homes, and important issues today, what would you include?