Student Resource

Habitats Exam Help

From art about home life to art that highlights the impact of climate change and pollution on natural habitats

Introduction

Mario Merz, ‘Igloo, Do We Go Around Houses, or Do Houses Go Around Us?’ 1977, reconstructed 1985
Mario Merz
Igloo, Do We Go Around Houses, or Do Houses Go Around Us? 1977, reconstructed 1985
Tate
© Fondazione Merz

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!

Human habitats

Jonathan Leaman, ‘A Jan Steen Kitchen’ 1995–6
Jonathan Leaman
A Jan Steen Kitchen 1995–6
Tate
© Jonathan Leaman
Edouard Vuillard, ‘The Laden Table’ c.1908
Edouard Vuillard
The Laden Table c.1908
Tate

Home life

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, ‘Preparatory Sketch for ‘Coffee’’ 1915
Pierre Bonnard
Preparatory Sketch for ‘Coffee’ 1915
Tate
Pierre Bonnard, ‘Coffee’ 1915
Pierre Bonnard
Coffee 1915
Tate

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.

In the 1950s artists such as John Bratby and Jack Smith also painted home life and celebrated the lives of ordinary people and the places where they lived.

John Bratby, ‘Still Life with Chip Frier’ 1954
John Bratby
Still Life with Chip Frier 1954
Tate
© The estate of John Bratby. All Rights Reserved 2019 / Bridgeman Images
Jack Smith, ‘Mother Bathing Child’ 1953
Jack Smith
Mother Bathing Child 1953
Tate
© The estate of Jack Smith

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.
David Sylvester

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.

Tracey Emin, ‘My Bed’ 1998
Tracey Emin
My Bed 1998
Lent by The Duerckheim Collection 2015
© Tracey Emin

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.
Tracey Emin

Captured on camera

Paul Graham, ‘Television Portrait (Cathy, London)’ 1989
Paul Graham
Television Portrait (Cathy, London) 1989
Tate
© Paul Graham; courtesy Pace and Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York
Paul Graham, ‘Television Portrait (Jack, Bradford)’ 1989
Paul Graham
Television Portrait (Jack, Bradford) 1989
Tate
© Paul Graham; courtesy Pace and Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York
Paul Graham, ‘Television Portrait (Danny, Bristol)’ 1991
Paul Graham
Television Portrait (Danny, Bristol) 1991
Tate
© Paul Graham; courtesy Pace and Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

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, ‘Strümpfe’ 2002
Wolfgang Tillmans
Strümpfe 2002
Tate
© Wolfgang Tillmans, courtesy Maureen Paley, London
Wolfgang Tillmans, ‘Faltenwurf (oliv)’ 1996
Wolfgang Tillmans
Faltenwurf (oliv) 1996
Tate
© Wolfgang Tillmans, courtesy Maureen Paley, London

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.

Jeff Wall, ‘A View from an Apartment’ 2004–5
Jeff Wall
A View from an Apartment 2004–5
Tate
© Jeff Wall

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

Sarah Jones, ‘The Dining Room (Francis Place) I’ 1997
Sarah Jones
The Dining Room (Francis Place) I 1997
Tate
© Sarah Jones, courtesy Maureen Paley, London
Sarah Jones, ‘The Sitting Room (Francis Place) III’ 1997
Sarah Jones
The Sitting Room (Francis Place) III 1997
Tate
© Sarah Jones, courtesy Maureen Paley, London

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.

Photograph of work by Cathy Wilkes

Cathy Wilkes Untitled 2013 Installation View

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, ‘Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different?’ 1992
Richard Hamilton
Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different? 1992
Tate
© The estate of Richard Hamilton

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?

Explore more artworks about life at home

Buildings, streets and structures

David Hepher, ‘Albany Flats’ 1977–9
David Hepher
Albany Flats 1977–9
Tate
© David Hepher
Alex Katz, ‘City Night’ 1998
Alex Katz
City Night 1998
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
© Alex Katz

Alex Katz’s City Night 1998 and David Hepher’s Albany Flats 1977-9 show blocks of flats. Although depicting huge buildings, the artworks suggest the individual lives of the people who live there. There are lights in the windows in Katz’s painting, and different coloured curtains in the Albany flats.

Ivor Abrahams, ‘Privacy Plots III: Suburban Hedge’ 1970
Ivor Abrahams
Privacy Plots III: Suburban Hedge 1970
Tate
© Ivor Abrahams
Ivor Abrahams, ‘Privacy Plots V: Hedge and Street’ 1970
Ivor Abrahams
Privacy Plots V: Hedge and Street 1970
Tate
© Ivor Abrahams

Katz and Hepher have painted communities of people living on top of each other (literally!). Ivor Abrahams creates a very different view of our habitats in his series of prints Privacy Plots. He shows the structures of suburbia, the houses, fences and neatly clipped hedges people put up to guard their privacy. The brightly tinted prints suggest a lifestyle that seems perfect – but also fake, slightly chilling and isolated.

Mario Merz, ‘Igloo, Do We Go Around Houses, or Do Houses Go Around Us?’ 1977, reconstructed 1985
Mario Merz
Igloo, Do We Go Around Houses, or Do Houses Go Around Us? 1977, reconstructed 1985
Tate
© Fondazione Merz

Mario Merz’s igloo is inspired by the basic structures built by ancient nomadic cultures. It explores the theme of shelter and the relation of humans to their environment and community. Merz was part of the Arte Povera movement. Arte Povera artists were against consumerism (people’s desire to buy lots of things) and made their work from humble materials. Merz’s igloo is constructed from metal and slate.

Life on the street

Human habitats aren’t just homes and houses. Habitats can include other places where people live or spend time.

Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, ‘Kids with Collected Junk Near Byker Bridge (Byker) ’ 1971, printed 2012
Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen
Kids with Collected Junk Near Byker Bridge (Byker) 1971, printed 2012
Tate
© Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen

Photographer Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen captured the life of people living in Byker, a deprived area of Newcastle. In this photograph the children seem to be at home in an area of wasteland. Surrounded by old prams, discarded bits of furniture and broken TVs they have created their own habitat of sorts.

With his sculpture Gate (We don’t meet here. We are always together first.) 2004, artist Martin Boyce wanted to symbolise the habitats that people hang out in.

Martin Boyce, ‘Gate (We don’t meet here. We are always together first.)’ 2004
Martin Boyce
Gate (We don’t meet here. We are always together first.) 2004
Tate
© Martin Boyce

The gate is the sort of ordinary boring gate you might see at an entrance to a park. But to the people that visit and make use of the park it is important. Boyce said that when he made the sculpture he ‘wanted to have that same feeling, of a space that you might have occupied as a teenager, that place you find for yourself’.

Markéta Luskačová’s photograph shows homeless people in London. They gather round a fire while flakes of snow fall around them. Their habitat is the street.

Marketa Luskacova, ‘People around a fire, Spitalfields Market, London’ 1976, later print
Marketa Luskacova
People around a fire, Spitalfields Market, London 1976, later print
Tate
© Marketa Luskacova
Boris Mikhailov, ‘At Dusk’ 1993
Boris Mikhailov
At Dusk 1993
Tate
© Boris Mikhailov

Artist Boris Mikhailov’s At Dusk is a powerful series of photographs documenting his hometown Kharkiv in Ukraine. The photographs document life on the streets and capture the poverty that many of the inhabitants face.

Homelessness is a big issue in the UK today, with thousands living on the streets or in temporary accommodation. How could you use art to draw attention to homelessness?

Animal habitats and marine life

Spencer Gore, ‘Study for a Mural Decoration for ‘The Cave of the Golden Calf’’ 1912
Spencer Gore
Study for a Mural Decoration for ‘The Cave of the Golden Calf’ 1912
Tate

It is not only the habitats of people that have inspired artists. Explore artworks that depict animals, birds, fish and marine life in their natural habitats.

Blue-striped tigers? Red antelopes? Spencer Gore’s brightly coloured painting of a forest or jungle scene was inspired by the Tahitan paintings of Paul Gauguin. Gore designed his jungle scene for a mural in a bar. Rather than depicting a realistic animal habitat, his aim was to create a joyous, decorative picture that would be escapism from real life. He said of his design:

We want surroundings, which after the reality of daily life, reveal the reality of the unreal.

To create this sense of unreality, the colours are abstracted and the forms of the animals simplified. Although not a realistic representation the bold colours and shapes suggest the vibrancy of the jungle.

Sea world

Mary Kessell and John Piper have created very different images of marine habitats. John Piper has used collage and gestural marks to make his beach scene. The focus of the image is a rock pool with starfish, fish and coral. The collage suggests the rich and varied textures and surfaces that you might find on a beach.

John Piper, ‘Beach with Starfish’ c.1933–4
John Piper
Beach with Starfish c.1933–4
Tate
© The Piper Estate
Mary Kessell, ‘Still Life under the Sea’ 1960
Mary Kessell
Still Life under the Sea 1960
Tate
© The estate of Mary Kessell

Mary Kessell has also used gestural mark making to create her underwater scene. Diluted washes of paint and marks made with a sponge give the impression of a blurry underwater world. The lines and shapes suggest seaweed and rocks of the seabed, and the darting forms of tiny fish.

Bird life

Sir Cedric Morris, Bt, ‘Peregrine Falcons’ 1942
Sir Cedric Morris, Bt
Peregrine Falcons 1942
Tate
© The estate of Sir Cedric Morris

Artist Cedric Morris has painted a pair of Peregrine Falcons with their nest high on a craggy cliff. The birds and their habitat have been simplified. He has used thick paint and dabbed it on to the painting creating a flickering, textured surface. He said he wanted to put across the mood of the birds, and if he painted them with painstaking accuracy, he might destroy their character.

John Wells, ‘Sea Bird Forms’ 1951
John Wells
Sea Bird Forms 1951
Tate
© The estate of John Wells

John Wells has taken a very different approach in his painting of a seagull flying over its habitat – the sea. He has abstracted the gull to a series of shapes that suggest wings, arched body and beak. The painting conveys a feeling of the movement of a flying bird. The pale greys of the bird harmonise with the pale blues, greys and whites of the sea an sky. This makes the gull seem at one with its habitat.

More art about animals, birds and fish in their habitats

Out of place

Because we expect to see animals in their natural habitats, when we see them in unusual places or situations, we question what we are looking at. Artists sometimes depict animals in unlikely settings, to surprise or shock the viewer or to make a point or put across a message.

Salvador Dalí, ‘Lobster Telephone’ 1936
Salvador Dalí
Lobster Telephone 1936
Tate
© Salvador Dali, Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation/DACS, London 2019
Christopher Wood, ‘Zebra and Parachute’ 1930
Christopher Wood
Zebra and Parachute 1930
Tate

Surrealist artists often put unlikely things objects and images together to explore the hidden thoughts buried in our subconscious or to re-create the unreal world of dreams. By placing a lobster with a telephone Salvador Dali has created a weird, slightly disturbing object.

Christopher Wood was inspired by surrealist art. His decision to place a zebra on the terrace of a modern concrete building creates an equally strange, unexpected image.

Artist Damien Hirst also often takes animals out of the context of their natural habitats. Away from the Flock forces us to focus on a humble sheep. Hirst transforms the sheep from the everyday into something special. Although dead the sheep in Hirst’s work seems to be prancing with life. By preserving the sheep in formaldehyde it will ‘live’ forever.

Damien Hirst, ‘Away from the Flock’ 1994
Damien Hirst
Away from the Flock 1994
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
© Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2019. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd
Damien Hirst, ‘Forms Without Life’ 1991
Damien Hirst
Forms Without Life 1991
Tate
© Damien Hirst and Science Ltd.

Much of Hirst’s work is about death and mortality. Forms Without Life is an arrangement of shells inside a glass cabinet. The cabinet makes us think of the tradition of collecting and classifying natural specimens.

Hirst has commented that ‘you kill things to look at them’. With this work he seems to be commenting on the irony of removing plants and animals from their natural habitat, killing them in order to ‘preserve’ them as a beautiful display.

Pollution, climate change and our impact on natural habitats

Humans and human habitats – the way we live our lives – can have a huge impact on the environment and natural habitats. Some artists have chosen to explore these issues in their art to draw attention to them.

Pollution

Keith Arnatt, ‘Miss Grace’s Lane’ 1986–7
Keith Arnatt
Miss Grace’s Lane 1986–7
Tate
© Keith Arnatt Estate
Keith Arnatt, ‘Miss Grace’s Lane’ 1986–7
Keith Arnatt
Miss Grace’s Lane 1986–7
Tate
© Keith Arnatt Estate

Photographer Keith Arnatt photographed areas of the countryside and beauty spots where rubbish and waste have been dumped. The contrast of the beauty of the natural habitats with the ugly mess of the rubbish from human habitats creates a powerful anti-pollution message.

Terry Setch and Cedric Morris also make art about pollution and the damage this does to animal and bird habitats. Cedric Morris’s Landscape of Shame shows dead or dying birds in a desolate landscape. He made the work in response to the devastating effects of crop-sprays and pesticides on the bird population.

Sir Cedric Morris, Bt, ‘Landscape of Shame’ c.1960
Sir Cedric Morris, Bt
Landscape of Shame c.1960
Tate
© The estate of Sir Cedric Morris
Terry Setch, ‘Once Upon a Time There Was Oil (Beach)’ 1981
Terry Setch
Once Upon a Time There Was Oil (Beach) 1981
Tate
© Terry Setch

Terry Setch’s Once Upon a Time There Was Oil shows the destruction caused by oil washed up on a beach. The gestural, thick grey marks suggest the skeletal forms of plants and sea life, smothered by the mess of oil.

Ai Weiwei, ‘Tree’ 2010
Ai Weiwei
Tree 2010
Tate
© Ai Weiwei

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei often explores and highlights issues affecting contemporary China. His sculpture Tree is made from the branches and trunks of different trees from different locations in China. These have been attached together to create a fake, composite tree. The wood used to make Tree is dry and dead. The work draws attention to and comments on the damage to the natural environment caused by the country’s industry and the rapid growth of its cities.

Climate change

Photograph of a boat and an iceberg floating in Nuup Kangerlua, Greenland

Harvesting ice floating in Nuup Kangerlua, Greenland Photo: Jørgen Chemnitz © Olafur Eliasson

Artist Olafur Eliasson is deeply interested in social and environmental issues. His 2018 project Ice Watch, created along with geologist Minik Rosing, involved transporting 24 huge blocks of ice from the Nuup Kangerlua fjord in Greenland to the River Thames in London. As a result of global warming the ice blocks had become detached from a larger ice sheet. The aim of the artwork is to highlight the reality of climate change. Warmer climates have caused the Greenland ice sheet to lose around 200–300 billion tonnes each year, a rate that is expected to increase dramatically. By bringing the ice to London Eliasson and Rosing have provided people with the chance to engage with the ice directly and see for themselves the devastating effects of climate change.

Put your hands on the ice, listen to it, smell it, look at it – and witness the ecological changes our world is undergoing.
Olafur Eliasson

Have a go!

We’ve pulled together some ideas to get you started on researching your exam project:

Pierre Bonnard, ‘Preparatory Sketch for ‘The Bowl of Milk’’ c.1919
Pierre Bonnard
Preparatory Sketch for ‘The Bowl of Milk’ c.1919
Tate
Wolfgang Tillmans, ‘Strümpfe’ 2002
Wolfgang Tillmans
Strümpfe 2002
Tate
© Wolfgang Tillmans, courtesy Maureen Paley, London

Impressionist artists often painted the people in their homes. The paintings provide intimate, quiet glimpses of ordinary lives. Kitchen sink artists such as John Bratby also painted ordinary interiors. These focus on the less glamorous aspects of ordinary home life such as chip fryers!

  • What aspects of your home life would you capture?
  • Pierre Bonnard made lots of sketches for his domestic scenes. Have a go at sketching things and people around your home. These could be as simple as someone watching television or playing computer game, or clothes on a radiator.
  • You could photograph your own home life. Choose unlikely details, and think how you frame these details. Look at Wolfgang Tillmans’s still lifes of ordinary objects for inspiration.
  • Use your source material as inspiration for a painting. You could use different elements from your sketches and photographs. Or you might decide to use one image. Make drawings to work our what to include and where things will go.
Tracey Emin, ‘My Bed’ 1998
Tracey Emin
My Bed 1998
Lent by The Duerckheim Collection 2015
© Tracey Emin

Tracey Emin used her messy bed to reflect a time in her life when she was feeling down.

  • What does your bedroom say about you?
  • What’s on your wall? What’s on your floor? What’s on your desk or chest of drawers? Have a look around your room and photograph or draw details that say something about you. What reflects your character? What reflects your interests? What reflects your mood or how you are feeling? (Are you listening to that sad song again?!)
  • Use these as a starting point for an artwork. This could be a painting, a collage, a video or a digital image.
Richard Hamilton, ‘Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different?’ 1992
Richard Hamilton
Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different? 1992
Tate
© The estate of Richard Hamilton

Pop artist Richard Hamilton’s Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different? is a collage of a room. It reflects what he felt about society and culture in the 1990s.

  • What things do you think reflect society today? Think about what people like doing, what they eat, which celebrities they are interested in.
  • Use Hamilton’s collage as a starting point. See if you can find equivalents from life today.
Spencer Gore, ‘Study for a Mural Decoration for ‘The Cave of the Golden Calf’’ 1912
Spencer Gore
Study for a Mural Decoration for ‘The Cave of the Golden Calf’ 1912
Tate

You don’t have to visit the jungle – or even the countryside to explore animal habitats.

  • Think about animal habitats that are close to you. Do birds, or foxes visit your garden or street? Are you lucky enough to have a city farm near you? There can even be animal life under a stone if you look closely!
  • Record these habitats. You could photograph or sketch the animals and make notes about their behaviour. Use these as the source material for an artwork. Or you might decide to create an imaginary habitat. Spencer Gore made a decorative painting inspired by the shapes of animals and their habitat.
  • Visit your library, or use the internet to find photographs of animals, birds and fish in their habitats. Use the shapes, colours and patterns from these images to create a bold and decorative painting.
Keith Arnatt, ‘Miss Grace’s Lane’ 1986–7
Keith Arnatt
Miss Grace’s Lane 1986–7
Tate
© Keith Arnatt Estate

Olafur Eliasson often makes powerful art about ecological issues. Keith Arnatt uses photography to raise awareness of pollution. Boris Mikhailov and Markéta Luskačová took powerful and shocking photographs of poverty and homelessness.

  • Is there an issue that is important to you? Are you passionate about the environment, worried about pollution or angry about homelessness? Plan an artwork that raises awareness of the issue and makes a point.
  • Get more inspiration about different approaches you could take from our Events and Issues Exam Help resource.

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