What Is Juxtaposition in Art?

Women painting in an artist's studio

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Simply stated, juxtaposition means placing two or more things side-by-side, often with the intention of comparing or contrasting the elements. It is commonly used in the visual arts to emphasize a concept, form unique compositions, and add intrigue to paintings, drawings, sculptures, or any other type of artwork.

Juxtaposition in Art

Juxtaposition is sometimes called collocation, though term that is often reserved for the placement of words or in the sciences. Artists often juxtapose with the intention of bringing out a specific quality or creating a particular effect. This is especially true when two contrasting or opposing elements are used. The viewer's attention is drawn to the similarities or differences between the elements.

Juxtaposition may take the form of shapes, changes in mark-making, contrasting colors, or representations of actual objects. For example, you may see an artist use aggressive mark-making next to an area of very controlled shading, or an area of crisp detail against something handled more softly.

In mixed media and sculpture with found objects, it may happen with actual physical objects. We see this often in the assemblage work of Joseph Cornell (1903–1972).

Expressing Concepts With Juxtaposition

While juxtaposition can be used in terms of those formal elements, it also refers to concepts or imagery. Quite often, this conceptual contrast is seen or noted more than any technical juxtaposing the artist may have employed.

As an example, an artist might juxtapose a machine-made object or urban environment against organic elements of nature in order to highlight different qualities in the two. The way in which this is done can dramatically change the meaning of the piece.

We might regard the human-created element as a representation of safety and order while seeing the uncontrollable strength of nature. In another piece, we might see the fragility and beauty of nature against the soulless uniformity of the urban world. It all depends on the nature of the subjects or images and the way they are presented.

Juxtaposition and Famous Artists

Once you know what juxtaposition is, it is not difficult to find it in art. It's everywhere and artists are trained to use it. At times it is subtle and in other works of art it is blatant and the comparisons cannot be missed. Some artists are very well-known for their juxtaposition skills.

Meret Oppenheim (1913–1985) perplexed viewers with "Le Déjeuner en fourrure" ("Luncheon in Fur," 1936). His juxtaposition of fur and a teacup is unsettling because we know the two do not belong anywhere near each other. It forces us to question form and function and wonder about the answer to Picasso's quip that "anything could be covered in fur."

M.C. Escher (1898–1972) is another artist whose work is memorable because it is filled with juxtaposition. The stark contrast of black and white, the repeating patterns that hide subtle differences inside, and his use of rhythmic progression all point to juxtaposition. Even the lithograph "Still Life with Spherical Mirror" (1934), which does not include his signature geometrical drawing, is a study in contrast and causes you to contemplate its meaning.

René Magritte (1898–1967) was a contemporary of Escher and he was just as boisterous in juxtaposing elements. The surrealist used scale to accentuate the concepts of his imagery and really play with the viewer's mind. The painting "Memory of The Voyage" (1958) has a delicate feather holding up the leaning tower of Pisa. The feather is enormous and because we don't expect this, it gives the piece even more impact.