How Does Contemporary Art Reimagine Polyptychs?

The polyptych is making a comeback in contemporary art.

Apr 30, 2023By Christopher Owen, BA Art & Design w/ Creative Technologies

polyptychs contemporary art


In art, style is forever in flux. Form, on the other hand, is rarely explored. One form, the polyptych, has spanned over countries, movements, and periods. Today, it is being used as the foundation of some of the most cutting-edge artistic projects. In 2023, the world of contemporary art is slowly becoming synonymous with digital art, incorporating NFT technology.


What Is a Polyptych?

high altar tallinn retable
The Retable of The High Altar in St. Nicholas’ Church by the Lübeck master Hermen Rode, 1478-1481, via The Niguliste Museum, Tallinn


Πτυχή, or Ptych, literally translates from Ancient Greek as fold. The word served to explain a form of artwork in which two or more pieces were connected to form segments. Although Diptychs, Ptyches with two parts, were made for personal use since the Roman Kingdom, the Polyptych only came into fashion in the early era of Christian art. Often hinged for folding together, the Polyptych was ideal for creating a three-dimensional space, more often than not observed as altarpieces. A great example is the workshop of Hermen Rode made in the late 15th century for a High Altar in Tallinn’s St. Nicholas Church. Even predating this work, we can look at works by Giotto and Van Eyck — the Badia Polyptych, the Bologna Polyptych, and the Ghent Altarpiece.


high altar tallinn retable blue
The Retable of The High Altar in St. Nicholas’ Church by the Lübeck master Hermen Rode, 1478-1481, via The Niguliste Museum, Tallinn


The Polyptych, while serving a physical purpose in antiquity, being transportable and configurable in shape, also served a more metaphysical purpose as time went on. Stories could be told in greater visual detail with the barriers between the individual panes of artwork demonstrating new chapters in time, place, or mood.


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Each pane is an individual piece of artwork telling its own story, yet connected to something greater. From pop series of antiquity to modern banners, polyptych has been used as the best visual form of storytelling that has been appreciated by artists up until the very present, now more than ever before.


The Polyptych Bildungsroman

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Death Hope Life Fear by Gilbert & George, 1981, via Tate Gallery, London


The 1980s were marked by the consolidation of neo-expressionism. The movement is famous for its far-reaching artistic vibrations, shedding a bright light on the works of David Salle, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Elizabeth Murray. But the decade was marked by a polyptych renaissance too, arguably the most influential work being Death Hope Life Fear by Gilbert & George in 1984. Such work embodied the move from expressionism to neo-expressionism with its shocking highly-textured color scheme and scale.


Broad brush strokes, bright color pops, and abstract styles characterized neo-expressionism artworks. The style aimed to express rather than depict physical reality.


Such artworks demonstrated how borders and separation in art can turn an abstract piece into a beautiful narrative. Without the separation of panes, a matryoshka-style reading can be taken. When adapted as a polyptych, each tile represents something individually while remaining part of the overall story. For example, the bottom center tile demonstrates the purity, impressionability, and innocence of childhood, while the second-to-top center tile demonstrates the solidified nature of mature thought, without much influence of the background at all.


The Digital Era: NFTs and Art Sharing

everydays nft beeple
The First 5000 Days by Beeple, 2021, via Christie’s


The ability of the polyptych to unite while savoring individuality is exactly what makes it a contemporary art subject in 2023. We currently live in a world plagued by divisions and crises. But the level of diversity and human communication is higher than ever. This dichotomy is laying the foundations for a new phenomenon in the art industry known as the NFT.


These unique digital artworks are verified and stored on a blockchain, allowing artists to bring art to the masses and release multi-image collections without the necessity to display all of them at exhibitions. Art NFTs have gained popularity in recent years as a new way for artists to monetize their work and for collectors to own digital art. With NFTs now representing 2% of the global art market, according to a recent report by Artprice, you may be surprised to hear that most of those sold for a fortune and auctioned at Sotheby’s are polyptychs. Take Beeple’s Everydays: The First 5000 days for example. This work shows a collage of all the images the digital artist has taken over 5,000 days since 2007. The collection became the first NFT work sold by Christieʼs in its 250-year history. The purchase deal was closed at a record $69 million, making Beeple the third-richest contemporary artist, and bringing attention to the value and potential of NFTs in the art world.


Concept2048 Breathes a Digital Life Into Polyptych

metamorphoses by concept2048
Envoys of The Universe, Metamorphoses by Concept2048, 2022, via Venice Biennale


Along with auction houses, the world’s largest art exhibitions have also been increasingly turning their heads towards NFTs. One of the most recent major NFT debuts took place at the famous contemporary art exhibition called Venice Art Biennale, held from April to November 2022. Among them was the polyptych made by Concept2048. The piece is the latest example of art polyptych gaining popularity both as an artwork and an NFT collection.


Digital artists Ekaterina Perekopskaya and Rostyslav Brenych use the polyptych concept for storytelling, art sharing, and charity.  The collection comes as 2,048 unique, enigmatic portraits of Envoys of the Universe. Each of the pieces is individual, yet inextricably connected. Those buying unique NFT pieces become community members empowered to decide which environmental charity will receive a share of the revenue. Indeed, staying true to the spirit of an ancient polyptych, NFT owners can maintain their individuality while being part of something greater and beneficial to a bruised society.


The faces of the Envoys depicted in photographs are covered with draped headpieces. With closed eyes, and senses deprived, nothing can disturb their inner vision. Not even phones, social media, or gossip. The shared symbolism calls for a return to nature, a dismissal of distractions, and an appreciation of natural beauty while staying connected through the roots of the greater polyptych. Moreover, color is very important. Each portrait controls one of the four natural elements: fire, water, earth, or air.


The Evolution of Color, Light, and Materials 

No Return Michael Marshall
No Return to Bennecourt by Michael Marshall, 2022, via the University of Hawaii


Another polyptych highlighting the problem of climate change was displayed at the Fishcake gallery on O‘ahu last year. The 12-panel art piece called No Return to Bennecourt was created by Michael Marshall, a professor of art at the University of Hawaii, who took inspiration from Claude Monet’s water lily triptychs in order to raise awareness of climate problems.


The artist uses a range of materials and showcases the impact of global warming through the utilization of color, shape, and light. This artistic technique evokes a sense of urgency to start saving the planet. The artwork progresses through the blue, yellow, and red primary colors, featuring four panels per color. Each panel depicts a 16-year period, starting from 1818-1834 and concluding in 2006-2022. This imaginative and thought-provoking work blends art, poetry, and science to create a powerful visual impact that stays with the viewer.


Dream Tapestry: A Collective Polyptych Experience

contemporary art dali dream tapestry
Dream Tapestry Experience 2022, via The Dalí Museum, Saint Petersburg, Florida


Polyptych can also come to life. Contemporary artists from The Salvador Dalí Museum combined technologies and art to create a collective polyptych called The Dream Tapestry. Collective means that any visitor of the exhibition can participate in its creation.


The interactive experience uses Artificial Intelligence to create fine art pieces from the gallery visitors’ dreams. The Dream Tapestry asks guests to write down their recent or favorite dream and then combines six different ones to create a unique collective polyptych, displayed on a 3.5-meter screen on the museum walls. What’s really unique about this installation is that it allows for discovering human nature and understanding what people are dreaming about at a particular period of time. It searches for connections between the dreams of visitors that are not acquainted with each other.


The Dream Tapestry gives a unique representation of polyptych as a collective art experience where storytelling is made by everyday people. The concept is a total novelty in the museum industry and it will likely influence the future of art exhibitions, moving them far beyond just 3D visuals.


Looking forward: The Polyptych as Contemporary Art 

dream tapestry
Dream Tapestry Experience 2022, via The Dalí Museum, Saint Petersburg, Florida


Contemporary artists and digital technologies are breathing a new life into the polyptych concept, reimagining it into something that innovatively democratizes art. Much in the same way that the art on the Berlin wall was a form of rebellion against the division that the wall stood for, modern polyptych artworks bring us away from falsehood and social misdemeanors. They bring us back to our roots all the while using the ancient multifaceted cast for widening the artistic gyre.

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By Christopher OwenBA Art & Design w/ Creative TechnologiesChristopher is a contributing writer and researcher with a passion for modern art and digital technologies. He holds a BA in Art and Design with Creative Technologies from the University of Birmingham. He is also a member of The Society of British & International Interior Design and a part-time traveler who enjoys every opportunity to attend new art exhibitions.