Comparative Study

Why assess a comparative study?

Both SL and HL students need to understand the intricate relationship between theory and practice. The course encourages students to critically investigate the work of other artists and allow the work to inform their own art-making practice. This task gives students the opportunity to elaborate, extrapolate and present a comparative study of three works by at least two artists from different cultural contexts that they have investigated as a part of their art-making practice. HL students are further required to articulate the connections between the work examined in the comparative study and their own art-making, giving them the chance to think about how theory is related to practice.

Core syllabus areas related to the task

The following core syllabus areas are addressed in the comparative study assessment task. The term “artworks” is used here generically and could refer to a range of visual and cultural artifacts.

Visual arts in context
  • What are the social, historical, political and intellectual contexts of each of the works explored?
  • How do the artworks reflect aspects of the world in which they were created?
  • What experiences of the world does the audience bring to their interpretation and appreciation of the artworks?
  • Which critical methodologies are most appropriate to analyze, interpret and evaluate the artworks?
  • How has exploring these contexts influenced the students’ own art-making? (HL only)
Visual arts methods
  • What media, processes and techniques have been used in each of the artworks?
  • What aspects of the processes and techniques are conventional or innovative?
  • How have formal qualities, such as the elements and principles of design, been used and to what effect (or affect)?
  • What motifs, signs and symbols have been used in the works and what do these communicate to the audience?
  • How are the artworks evaluated?
  • How have the artists’ methodologies influenced the student’s own art-making? (HL only)
Communicating visual arts
  • What methods of organization and presentation most effectively communicate knowledge and understanding?
  • How can visual organizers and graphics be used to convey information more effectively than words alone?
  • Who is the audience for the comparative study? What prior understandings can be assumed?





Damien Hirst (British, b 1965) For the Love of God (2007), platinum cast of human skull encrusted with 8601 flawless diamonds.

Mosaic mask of Tezcatlipoca (Mexica/Mixtec, c. 15–16th century CE) human skull, deer hide, turquoise, black lignite, polished iron pyrite, white conch (Strombus) shell. The nasal cavity is lined with plates of bright red thorny oyster (Spondylus) shell.

Quimbaya Death mask (Colombia:Quimbaya c. CE 600-1100), gold.

Memento Mori

This presentation focuses on Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God (2007) work and arose from the student’s interest in the Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) imagery from Mexico.

Comparisons are made between Hirst’s work and 15–16th century Mixtec Mosaic mask of Tezcatlipoca as well as the Quimbaya Death mask.

The student considers the prevalence of imagery of death across the cultures, considering the function and significance.

The student considers the juxtaposition of precious elements with morbidity.


Jean-Michel Basquiat (Haitian-American 1960–1988) Irony of Negro Policeman (1981) acrylic and crayon on canvas, 183 × 122 cm.

Keith Haring (American, 1958–1990) Untitled (mural in the cafeteria of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp, Belgium, 1987), mural.

Banksy (British, unknown) Untitled (Keith Haring tribute, The Grange, Bermondsey, London). Street graffiti, spray enamel via stenciling.

Crime to Commodity

The student was interested in graffiti/street art and was posing questions through their own work about the definition of art versus vandalism.

To broaden the field of the student’s investigation, the teacher directed the student to the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, both of whom were in the graffiti scene before transitioning to the status of respected visual artists.

The student explores the cultural context of the world in which each of the artists worked/work and the significance of the political commentary in the work.

The student was particularly pleased to find a Bansky image that paid homage to Keith Haring.


Andres Serrano (American, born 1950) Piss Christ (1987) photograph of a small plastic crucifix submerged in what the artist has described as being his own urine in a glass.

David Černý (Czech, born 1967) Shark (2005), life-like replica of a bound Saddam Hussein in a parody of the glass tank of Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.

Bill Henson (Australian, born 1955), Untitled #38, 2005/06, type C photograph, 127 × 180 cm, edition of 5 + 2 A/Ps.

The Genius of Offense

Following a TOK presentation on Robert Hughes’ Shock of The New: Art and the Century of Change, the student launched himself into an investigation of recent controversial art and the power of art to provoke strong reactions.

The comparative study considered the range of responses to symbols and imagery used in the works from the different perspectives of the audiences who would see and respond to the works in various contexts.

The investigation resulted in a short-lived, but enthusiastic series of works that challenged some of the assumptions and the culture of hisconservative faith-based private school.


Sandro Botticelli (Italian, Early Renaissance: c. 1445–1510), Nascita di Venere(Birth of Venus, 1486), tempera on canvas, 172.5 × 278.9 cm

Alexandre Cabanel (French, 1823–1889), Naissance de Venus (Birth of Venus, 1963), oil on canvas, 130 × 225 cm

Édouard Manet (French, 1832–1883) Olympia (1863), oil on canvas, 130.5 × 190 cm

ORLAN (Mireille Suzanne Francette Porte, French, born 1947), The Reincarnation of Sainte Orlan (begun 1990), series of plastic surgeries on the artist’s body.

Visions of Venus

This comparative study emerged from the student’s own art-making practice, which focused on representations of the human form and changing notions of beauty.

The comparative study provides a survey of key works representing the female form in Western art.

In analysing, interpreting, evaluating and comparing the works, the student adopted a feminist critical methodology, which identified how feminist theory informed the interpretation of imagery in the works and the evaluation of the significance of the works within the context in which they were created and to the broader canon of Western art.


Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973), Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon, 1907), oil on canvas, 243.9 × 233.7 cm.

Fang mask used for the ngil ceremony (Gabon, Central Africa, c19th century), wood, 66cm.

Iberian female head (Province of Albacete, Castile-La Mancha, Spain, c. 299–100 BCE), sandstone, 15 × 17 × 10 cm.

Primitivism in Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

The student’s interest in this subject arose from a TOK discussion on the ethics of appropriation in the arts, with a particular focus on the exploitation of indigenous motifs.

The student was directed to a copy of Hal Foster’s “The "Primitive" Unconscious of Modern Art”, October. Vol 34, (Autumn, 1985), pp. 45–70, which helped the student evaluate the claims, denied by Picasso, that the stylistically transitional elements in Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon were influenced by his contact with African and Iberian sculpture.


Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669), Self-Portrait with Two Circles (c. 1665–1669), oil on canvas, 114.3 × 94 cm.

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853–1890), Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, Easel and Japanese Print (1889), oil on canvas, 60 × 49 cm.

Frida Kahlo de Rivera (Mexican, 1907–1954), Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940), oil on canvas, 61.25 × 47 cm.

Brett Whiteley (Australian, 1939–1992), Art, Life and the Other Thing (1978) (Triptych), oil, glass eye, hair, pen and ink on cardboard, plaster, photography, oil, dried PVA, cigarette butts, hypodermic syringe on board, 90.4 × 77.2 cm, 230 × 122 cm, 31.1 × 31.1 cm.


The artworks explored in this study were originally investigated when the student was working on a series of her own self-portraits.
As her own portraits were being completed rapidly, as a series over a specified period of time, she was particularly interested in artists whose bodies of work included numerous self-portraits.

Her comparative study considers the changing conventions of portraiture within the context of the time and place in which the works were created.

Her analysis and interpretation considered the ways in which meaning was conveyed through the use of formal and symbolic codes, and in the case of the Whiteley, written codes as well.

The number of works examined compelled the student to rely on the thoughtful and considered use of annotated images and other visual organizers to convey her understandings in a succinct manner.



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