Thursday, July 31, 2014

Abstract Art (pt. 6)

But can the human mind comprehend "random"?  Michael Shermer, author and founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, has written an article on what he calls "patternicity"—the brain's ability to connect sequences and find order in random phenomena.  Commonly referred to as pareidolia or apophenia, this condition of the mind finds patterns and systems within otherwise chaotic environments or situations.  In the post-WWI world which we are studying, notions regarding this study within neuroscience were characterized under the invention of the psychological inkblot test by Hermann Rorschach in 1921.  This staple of modern psychology is one with which we are all familiar on an anecdotal sense.  A white card, stained randomly on one side with spilled ink and then folded to create a symmetrical image, is presented to a viewer who then expresses what he or she believes to see within the stain upon first glance.  In Kandinsky's day, this test was used for diagnosis of mental illness, but it has since grown to operate within much broader functions to apply to personality tests and other psychological studies.  It demonstrates the ability of the mind to find meaning within abstraction and see structure in anarchy.  Shermer's article on patternicity, published in Scientific American in 2008, pushes the concept to argue that our minds constantly do this and that in fact "our brains are belief engines."  Supporting evidence for Shermer's article comes from the 2008 study conducted by Harvard University professor Kevin R. Foster and Hanna Kokko of the University of Helsinki (Finland) and published in the leading research journal of the Royal Society's Biological Sciences field.  Although both the article and the peer reviewed study examine the operations of "patternicity" within the context of Evolutionary Theory (and consequently remain within the category of pseudoscience), the thought is relevant to our look at Abstract Art.
Remember back to Michelangelo's fresco of The Creation of Adam, where God stretches his arm down from Heaven to touch Adam's hand; and there is a space between their two index fingers.  They do not make contact, but our mind's eye fills in the gap; it connects the dots, so to speak, even though they are left open.  People describe the work as "Adam touching God," when in fact the opposite is true.  They are not touching, and given the historical context of Renaissance Humanism we can see that the work's entire point is to show that this disconnectedness is Adam's fault.  But what is it about our perception that we find in images things that aren't really there?  This comes back to haunt us here and now with Kandinsky's artwork.  Do you see anything in these paintings?  Isn't this just a completely random combination of colors and shapes on a canvas which contains no implicit meaning or message?  If it is truly random, then what are the implications for art?  Is art something random?  Up to this point, we have looked at a whole history of Western art and have no doubt found a fair amount of inherent significance in the study.  I have humbly sought to explicate several important works of art and communicate something of their meaning and importance within the field of art history.  But supposing we come now to a painting that has no latent meaning, an invention which can't be explained through artistic terms or any terms?  In the context of art's historical sequence, paintings like these of Kandinsky come as total backlashes against not just the previous generation but against the structure of art on a whole.  Like the Dada movement in the early 1920s, this style of painting is attempting to deconstruct art theory.  It gives us an opportunity to look closer inside the medium and inspect the elements we've seen up to this point for establishing a definition, or at least a clear understanding, of art.
The surprising thing about music which we learn when we study music theory is that it is very mathematical.  Jazz, however consistent with other musical forms, is arguably the least mathematical of genres because it deconstructs the structured order of compositions.  (Don't get me wrong: jazz—at least the jazz developing around this time, the post-WWI Modern period—retains much dependence on formula; but it, probably more than any other style of music, pulls away from that).  So, is art mathematical?  What is structured in art that needs to be disassembled?  I'm not just talking about craft or the making of art.  Does the body of Western artwork which we have studied up to now contain some overarching formula for construction, like the Ancient Egyptian grid system that dominated hieroglyphic art styles during the Middle Kingdom?  Do we see mathematics in Géricault's Raft of the Medusa or geometry in Murillo's Return of the Prodigal Son?  A 2010 article from The Guardian, quoting chairman of the Italian national committee for cultural heritage Silvano Vinceti, expressed the views held by some experts that the Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci's famous masterpiece, contains hidden symbols of numbers and letters within the scene and even in the figure's own facial features.  What do such findings indicate—that art is truly mathematical in formula, or that it is merely our own minds looking for patterns and structures within a flat surface of randomized shapes and colors?

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Abstract Art (pt. 5)

Floating around out here in abstract territory, I suppose anything goes.  What do you think of these little guys?  I think they look like little animals—I don't know, like plankton or something.  Again, the artist gives no clue to subject matter (and indeed, there is none in this painting, titled Sky Blue).  Kandinsky has instead painted unintelligible shapes in a strange variety of bright colors.  Totally random.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Abstract Art (pt. 4)

The culminating end product of this deconstruction of art in the early 20th century was Non-Objective Art, a style that uses color, line, texture, and unrecognizable shapes and forms.  These works are totally abstract and contain no apparent references to reality.  When we arrive at Kandinsky, artists refuse even to title their works, in order to stay true to the idea of pure abstraction.  This painting is his Composition III.
Wassily Kandinsky's earliest artworks follow Post-Impressionist styles, with clear references to reality and actual subject matter.  He could paint realistically but eventually chose not to for specific, philosophical reasons.  Coming through art school, the painter sought new ways to show the world around him and express inner feelings through images not tied to tangible objects.  Art, in his mind, should not be merely an illustration of objects as they appear in nature.  He followed the theory that all nature can be simplified by geometry, and he believed that a painting should be a duplicate of some inner emotion (Expressionism).  But it's left completely to abstracts.  Kandinsky's paintings are very cerebral in that he doesn't give any clues as to what we are observing.  This is literally a canvas of lines and shapes, colors on an otherwise blank, white surface, much of which, by the way, has been left blank and white.  They appear structured and in some kind of order (most of his paintings, for instance, feature a blue circle, red square, and yellow triangle), but that order is indiscernible to us, the viewer.  Here we enter into a world not necessarily of imagination or style but of pure abstraction; the point of the painting is to exist outside of reality.  What meaning can come out of such a work?  That, too, is left open and undefined.  The artist is trying to create a work that extends beyond itself through non-reality, but how about you?  What do you think; is this art?  Have we broken off into something else?

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Abstract Art (pt. 3)

The Abstract Art movement can be seen as a continuation of the idealistic progression in art theory developing at this time; it can also be seen as a product of the times.  In the aftermath of World War I, as I mentioned earlier, many poets and writers fled to Paris for safe haven against a world which they thought was falling apart at the seams (in their eyes, especially America).  In 1919, William Butler Yeats wrote one of the great, definitive lines of Modernism in his poem, "The Second Coming": "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold."  This was to say that eventually world systems break down, deteriorate, and die; and Yeats was right.  Modernism is about this deconstruction and collapse of the old ideals (of faith, connection to nature, nobility of existence, relation to one another—of all the traditional strongholds of goodness and innocence).  I state this as the case specifically within the art world at this time.  (As a footnote, this is a blog about art history; when I mention history, it's to be related back to art.  I make no statements about church history, national or racial history, or any other kind of history but that which is happening within the art world—just so we're clear).  The Modern Age in art saw many innovations that broke down the foundational customs of preceding generations.  For one thing, the music world saw a total revolution in the advent of the Jazz Age.  The kind of chaotic melodies produced in jazz music perhaps make for a good comparison between the old, structured order of the Victorian world and this new world of Modern ideological pseudo-anarchy.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Abstract Art (pt. 2)

Klee let his imagination run free in this innovative style of hyper-expressionism.  Working on scraps of burlap, paper, glass, linen, and other materials, he created a collage of works that, each and every one, expanded the notions of what art could accomplish.  He created almost nine thousand paintings and drawings based solely on his own imagination and wit.  As with this wholly abstract work, Ancient Sound, the artist brought philosophy and artistic theory into his works on an unprecedented level.
All that is really here are squares of color, applied paint on a canvas apparently not even trying to embody subject matter either impressionistically or realistically.  The title suggests that this is something "ancient."  A fundamental construction as simplistic as this marks this painting as a staple work of Primitivism.  Art (at least, the kind we are looking at) is, in its most fundamental definition, colors and shapes.  Going back to these most basic elements of art—deconstructing the painting to its simplest, most primal elements—is not merely a venture of Expressionism, it's a philosophical endeavor.  The ultimate metacritical move for art in the Modern Era was its progression to self-analysis and art about art.  All formalities break down, and we enter into a world of abstracts in order to experiment with the techniques and applications of various art forms.  This is Abstract Art.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Abstract Art (pt. 1)

In the stream of Primitivism, Paul Klee was an artist who used simple approaches to convey artistic expression.  He created "primitive art" that incorporated only the most basic symbolism and use of form to communicate broad, ambiguous ideas.  The freedom of the artist's imagination extends here even to a world that doesn't always make sense to the painter as well as to the viewer.  He is known to have "appropriated" the works of children—he actually copied kids' work to infuse a greater sense of simplistic sincerity.  As the Enlightenment philosophers thought that native tribes of "savage" people possessed an inherent nobility and honesty, so artists like Klee found a greater connection to humanity through simple forms, such as this oil and watercolor painting by the artist, entitled Fish Magic.
The story goes that Klee visited the aquarium of Naples and watched the fish there in the huge tanks dart, turn, and glide gracefully by.  Fascinated by these colorful animals, the artist took his brush and slowly began to make lines and shapes to a canvas with no definite idea in mind except to capture the instinctive feelings of his reaction to the sight.  In Fish Magic, we are presented with a magical world of total fantasy and surrealism.  Nothing looks real, no perspective gives the painting any semblance to real life, and the subjects all vary so strangely that their placement next to each other stretches our understanding of the scene beyond the limits of what reality can permit.  Consequently, the subject of Fish Magic becomes a thing nonsensical or not understandable—the subject is abstract.  Klee spent hours studying shells and butterfly wings and implemented these organic designs from nature in his work; but this is a scene clearly not found anywhere in nature.  We can discern fish floating in an undefined, black space, and there are also flowers, potted plants, a stopwatch, and, by all appearances, even people as well, among other things.  What are they all doing in this scene?  What's going on?  The ideals of Primitivism discredit those questions and say that those things don't matter; what matters is the natural relation of our mind's eye to the visual stimulus of the painting.  As I stated that not all Expressionism denoted self-expression, a painting like Klee's can be read as a direct appeal to the viewer's responsive, vicarious expression through visual interaction with the piece.  Since the subject is so incomprehensible, it is free of any constricting interpretive criteria for appreciation.  This is pure imagination, and imagination does not always make sense to person imagining as much as it does not always make sense to others.  Typical of the metacritical approach to art taken by the Modernists, many European artists around this time took the stance on their paintings to purposefully leave meaning out of their works as a way to construct a more genuinely expressive painting truer to the abstracts of cognitive and emotional consciousness and unconsciousness within the spectrum of the human experience.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Dada (pt. 5)

These would not be the last ludicrous work of Dadaist artist Marcel Duchamp.  He later pulled the stunt of turning his entire career into a sort of mock-performance piece with the creation of his female "alter ego," Rrose Sélavy—a sound-alike for another somewhat lewd sentence in French: "Eros, c'est la vie" ("Eros/eroticism, that's life").  By the 1930s, however, Duchamp would remove himself from the art world and pass on to different areas of social interest, particularly playing chess.
Having effectively accomplished the deconstruction of art, Dada slowly receded, and the movement itself ended by about 1922.  The spirit of the movement, however, continues on to this day, and in the progression of art history, Western art could now delve deeper into the abstracts.  After the devastating conclusion of the First World War, the art world did plunge headlong into a new pool of possibilities and practices, foregoing the orthodox traditions of the previous styles and techniques.  Dadaism had meant it for social criticism, but these artists would treat their art seriously and honestly assess the situation of creative expression in the 20th century.
Ever the humorist to the last, Marcel Duchamp died of a heart attack in 1968 and was buried under the epitaph of his own choosing: "D'ailleurs c'est toujours les autres qui meurent" ("After all, it's only always other people who die").

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Dada (pt. 4)

Two years later, Marcel Duchamp submitted yet another ridiculous and controversial work of art that criticized the art institution of the time.  The artist submitted this photograph print of the Mona Lisa with a carefully drawn moustache and drew at the bottom the letters "L. H. O. O. Q."
Duchamp visited a museum and did what all tourists do: he spent a lot of time in the gift shop.  It was there that he noticed all of the nice postcards and replica prints that people were buying.  He purchased this print of the Mona Lisa, took it home, and drew a moustache on it in pencil.  That year, in 1919, he submitted it to the salon with the absurd (and offensive) title, L.H.O.O.Q.  These letters, though harmless of themselves in their apparently random sequence, form a sentence when spoken out loud.  When said in French, the title resembles the sounds in the sentence, "Elle a chaud au cul," which translates into an obscene sentence.  This again was met by understandable incredulity on the part of the board of art critics, and Duchamp's defense this time was that he had found the item initially as part of an art gallery and had added his own "addition" to the creative input; therefore why should it not be viewed as art?
…So, it's hard to take this seriously, and I don't think it's meant to be taken seriously.  However, once again, this "print" has become a certified and famous work of art now.  And perhaps it is accredited with such a high status in the art world now for the ideas which it conveys: the notions that art can be anything and that it should never be strictly limited or narrowed down to a singularly definitive institution.  The rebellious spirit expressed in works like L.H.O.O.Q. says something about the nature of art (or at least, art as it has come to be made manifest today).  Works like this are emblematic of art as an entity; that this work says something "about art."  What is art?  Can anything be art?  What should the goal of art be?  And who can be an artist?  All these and other questions arose from the Dada criticism of the art world in the late 1910s and early 1920s, and they are (despite the humorous approach taken to them) relevant questions which still influence our notions of art today.  Drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa is funny, but it accomplishes something, too, at the same time.  It's making a statement to submit such a thing to a prestigious art salon.  What do you think?  Is this art?

Monday, July 21, 2014

Dada (pt. 3)

During the height of the Dada movement in Germany and France, Marcel Duchamp joined the satirical farce and turned his artistic focus to social critique and artistic rebellion from previous styles.  His notions of demolishing the customary regulations within the art world led him to extremes, and in 1917, to prove his point, he submitted a urinal into the art salon exhibition that year under the title "Fountain."
This was an ordinary urinal which he signed "R. Mutt," an absurd name which the artist found funny.  Technically, this was supposed to be submitted as a sculpture, but Duchamp did not make this.  He purchased the urinal from a plumbing company and, at his house, signed it and dated it.  Upon submitting this ridiculous item to the salon, the artist was naturally met with skepticism that such an object could be at all considered as art.  Duchamp's defense was that he had signed it, and that therefore it was to be considered art.
Okay, for those of us with senses of humor, let's be honest; this is pretty ridiculous.  It's a urinal, and that's clearly a joke—and it's funny.  Marcel Duchamp's Dadaist theories of art can here be seen as simply that: a joke.  This is a mockery of the high-brow institution that bastioned itself in high-minded academia and intellectualism; art was growing into a lavish and refined cultural echelon of its own.  But not even the more humbly realistic Ashcan School artists could suffice to adequately disassemble this institutionalized mechanization of art (as it had so become, at least, in Duchamp's opinion).  A radical example was needed to shake the foundations of the art world and awaken people to an honest criticism of themselves.  If you can't laugh at art, you can at least laugh at a urinal.
But people take this work very seriously now as a definitive work of art conveying the ideas of boundless expression and creative freedom within the medium.  The Fountain's original intent appears to have been satire and social criticism, but perhaps today we can have the debate in a more sober-minded attitude than shocked critics would have had back then.  Today, this urinal is considered an actual work of art.  (Lol)—You can go see reproductions of it to this day in one of several different art museums.  I'm not kidding.  So, the question we ask ourselves at this point is: Why?  Why is a urinal considered art?  Should it be considered art?  Do you consider it art?
Duchamp's idea of signature license reigns supreme in most contemporary discussions of his Dadaist artwork.  I've heard the argument countless times: He signed it; he dated it; he submitted it—therefore, it's a work of art.  I'll open this one up to you guys, my readers.  Do you think that an artist's signature on a work automatically classifies that object as a work of art?  It's a valid question, and it's one which we perhaps can debate more fully after we've finished covering the material.  For now, I'll move on.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Dada (pt. 2)

Marcel Duchamp did not start out as a Dadaist of course.  His early work focused on a form of Cubism, as demonstrated by his Nude Descending a Staircase series, of which this is No. 2.
Paying serious attention to subject matter and the complete dismantling of visual appearances, the artist depicted an innovative vision of what an object in motion could look like in a stop-motion universe, the flat canvas of the painter, and did so with reference to cinematic film cameras of the time.  Motion picture film captured moving objects frame by frame and shows the intricate stages of motion.  Since prior Cubist works had only focused on stationary sitters or collage-like still lifes, this subject was revolutionary to the movement and presented the artist with no small obstacles to overcome in his painting of it.  A Cubist, after all, breaks down the subject geometrically to show all sides at once.  With movement, this is a far trickier task to undertake.  Mathematics, optics, and physics all play a part in this intricate construction; the artist has gone to no small lengths to study his subject in exhaustive depth as well as think through his artwork in detailed analysis, breaking down each movement, each still frame of a camera shot, and each visual reception processed in the eyes of the viewer.  If we look closely at this painting we can perhaps see the nude descending the staircase, but it's been convoluted, as though all the frames of a motion picture camera have been overlapped on top of one another, giving us a foggy picture of blurred lines and indiscernible subject matter.  This is Duchamp's picture of objects in motion and the inefficiency of art, the still medium, to convey the non-stationary.  To be sure, the subject has been dumbed down here to the bare minimum of lines and shapes, but even so, this painting is incredibly complex.  It catalogues under Cubist art, but Cubism would not be enough to satisfy Marcel Duchamp.  Soon after this painting was completed (in 1912), he pushed his art forward to drastically rebellious and revolutionary levels.  He would become infamous for exhibiting the most ordinary and absurd objects in salons as works of art, and we're about to look at some.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Dada (pt. 1)

Back in Europe, art techniques turned increasingly abstract and surreal.  With the onset of World War I the Western world plunged itself into the nadir of 20th century Modernism.  The world was an increasingly different place.  The radio, the airplane, the Theory of Relativity, Model T Fords, motion pictures, and the helicopter appear during the early 1900s, among other things, and the public conception of the world we live in is changing around this time.  Science, culture, and geopolitics were all evolving rapidly, and artists also questioned the functions and role of art in this new, Modern world.  While some painters wanted to return to uncomplicated realism, such as the Ashcan School, others wanted to push art further—in fact, to its utmost limits.
Near the beginning of the war, a group of artists assembled (it is debated when the movement actually started and where it was first launched; but its epicenter largely coalesced around Zurich).  Friends, colleagues, fellow artists—these men mutually agreed to rebel against the constructs of art up to this point in out-and-out rebellion against their generation and the past cultures before them.  They believed that European culture had lost all meaning and purpose, ravaged by the Modern "waste land" of the early 20th century.  So, art needed to be deconstructed, pushed to its limits, and, in a way, put to death.  To title their new movement, these artists selected a word at random from the dictionary.  Their name needed to make no sense because they believed that their world had lost all of its sense and meaning.  The story goes that somebody dropped a dictionary, and they chose the first word that they saw; it was Dada.  Thereafter all members of the group called themselves Dadaists.  (It's a funny word, and don't feel bad if you don't know how to pronounce it—it's supposed to be silly.)
Dada art constitutes an artistic movement that ridiculed contemporary culture and traditional art forms.  Social satire, intellectual criticism, and sometimes total farce, Dada intentionally pushed the envelope of art in a blatantly provocative way.  Although this in-your-face tone established the greater part of the movement's itinerary towards mere criticism and satire, these were at the same time actual artists who took their work seriously—just, they took it seriously through being ridiculous…if that makes sense.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Ashcan School (pt. 3)

Similarly, in this painting of Dempsey and Firpo, the American artist George Bellows has offered a Realist subject that is painted not so realistically.  We see an utterly dramatic stage picture of the climactic end to yet another boxing tournament.  The lighting alone is like something out of a movie, atmospheric and epic, creating an aura of heightened melodrama.  We see the loser plunging most catastrophically to the ground below—not even inside the wire fence; he has literally been punched out of the ring.  His body contorts in an uncontrolled pose (rather an awkward and unrealistic one, at that) as he plummets into the crowd.  An approaching referee enters onto the scene from the right to further proclaim the loser's defeat with a definitive, downward-pointing finger.  From the other side of the ring, arms raised in applause and mouths opened loud in cheers or protests embody the lively crowd at this energetic and ultimately epic social gathering.  The unfortunate spectators in the front rows of the foreground duck or stand back to avoid the tumbling body.  In the center of it all, our champion, the winner of the fight, having just delivered his crushing blow, stands in a heroic pose reminiscent of the athletic poses of Ancient Greek statues like the Discuss Thrower.  Athletic ability is being glorified here.  The dramatic lighting highlights and silhouettes this victorious boxer, who stands tallest in the painting, and we can especially see his flexed and tensed muscles, red with heat and strain.  Both his failed opponent and he are in complex and nearly impossible poses, exaggerating their athletic prowess and making them appear larger than life, like gods clashing in momentous conflict.  This and the smooth, stylistically drawn faces of the different members of the crowd (who each wear different outfits) characterize the social event as a glamorous cultural phenomenon.  Bellows creates a quasi-Romanticized vision of the boxing match as a tangible or realistic expression of an art form perhaps truer to realism but no less in touch with the theoretical implications of style in painting.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Ashcan School (pt. 2)

George Bellows was not a member of the Ashcan School, but his paintings bore similarity to those of John French Sloan and the movement of American Realism.  A backlash against the wild freedoms of the European Cubists and Expressionists, Bellows' art harkens back to the late Victorian tenants of traditional Realism, while combining these with looser restrictions and greater freedoms toward personal style and subject matter.  The artist concentrated most on the subject he loved most: sports.  Bellows especially liked to paint boxing matches because he spent most of his time at the athletic club.
This painting, titled Stag at Sharkey's, he produced in 1909.  Here the artist has reverted to a clearly delineated subject matter (a boxing match) which bears its own manifest cultural significance, but Bellows has added his own technical approach to style in the execution of the painting.  To recreate the violent action of the ring he has applied the paint to the canvas using slashing brushstrokes.  With strong diagonal lines and blurred contours he has captured this swift action and the powerful determination of the opponents.  The faces of the crowd of course blur back into the dark; all attention is drawn to the center of the action in the center of the work.  But even amid his Realist style, Bellows can't avoid painting blurred figures, almost Impressionistically, to convey the sense of movement and the physicality and muscular force of such a scene.  Though conservative in subject matter, the painting employs unconventional methods of artistic technique.  There is a blend of innovation and traditionalism, then—and that perfectly characterizes the art of the Ashcan School.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Ashcan School (pt. 1)

Meanwhile in America, an art world was developing entirely of its own invention.  Although success and popularity in the art world then still required study in Europe, many painters chose not to follow the methods of European Cubism and Abstract Art because they found those ways too complicated.  Instead, this class of American artists in the early 1900s focused their efforts on more conservative art and paintings of traditional subjects and subject matter, not focusing on finding new approaches and images to paint.  It may not have been the most exciting of developments in the history of art given the apparent lack of progress toward artistic theories and innovative styles, but this counter-movement, so to speak, found a niche of its own.
The world did not stop developing technologically.  The business world (especially of America) was on an incline, and city populations continued to rise.  The world was an environment of growing industrial nations, at least until the war.  Newer generations adapted to the changed scenery, and a new Modern life was fully adopted.  With these changes came questions of identity and the shrinking away of the old customs, but some artists sought to answer these philosophical problems through simply opening one's eyes to the contemporary world.  Such was the itinerary of the Ashcan School.
The Ashcan School became the popular name identifying the group of artists who made realistic pictures of the most ordinary features of the contemporary scene.  These were artists who rebelled against the idealism of an academic approach to art and instead sought to paint life as they saw it being played out all around them.  American art, then, focusing on what was to be seen on the Modern scene, turned to city's night-life and cafés, streets, alleys, and theaters.  The Ashcan School in particular played a major role in American art from about 1908 to 1913, culminating in the great Armory Show of 1913, which was the first large exhibition of modern art in America.  For the first time on such a grand scale, the works of Paul Cézanne, Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Edvard Munch, and Pablo Picasso (among many others) were brought to the attention of the American public, effectively involving them in the historical scene of European art (though Paris remained—and in some respects has remained even to this day—the center of the art world on a whole).  In total, the show presented 1300 works by 300 artists.
The European works caused the greatest excitement and controversy.  Some tried to understand the new works; some tried to explain them; but most just laughed at them or were enraged.  The finer delicacies of Cubist and Expressionist art are, after all, not easily detectable upon a first glance, but the Ashcan artists took particular disgust in such abstract-minded works.  The room where the Cubist paintings were hung became known as "the Room of Horrors" to them.  Surely art should be truer to real-life humanity, they concluded.  And I think there is a good chunk of the population today which would agree with them.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Cubism (pt. 6)

A late Expressionist, Marc Chagall practiced Cubism in his earlier works but then moved onto personal Expressionism that also took from Surrealism (which is an art movement we will look at in greater detail later).  Many of his works showcased couples, but this one, La Mariée, is particularly among his most famous paintings.
There are certainly surreal elements within the work, but Chagall operates from Expressionist approaches to subject matter.  In fact, the artist frequently used images from Jewish and Russian folktales as well as children's stories to convey aspects of cultural identity, energy, and passion.  In this painting we are entering into a realm of fantasy.  Incidentally, the subject is a young bride who is preparing for her wedding.  She carries a bouquet and wears a red dress to convey her love.  All around her are blues and muted yellows so that she is the brightest figure in the painting.  Perhaps it is taking place at night, or maybe the artist merely shoves aside the rest of the world as bleak or uninteresting; the bride is the center of focus.  Standing at a tilted angle, she appears to be receding back into the dreamy, fantasy world behind her, where a goat is playing an instrument (some kind of small cello) and other musicians are playing and dancing.  An attendant glides across the bride to fix her veil, and a fish jumps up (perhaps also in dance).  A random table, matching the bride's red dress, appears in the upper right hand corner, just floating in space over the fish.  Behind all of that is a small church, doubtless where the couple will be wed (but since it appears all the way in the background that aspect of the ceremony almost seems insignificant or undesirable).  The artist has handpicked and chosen what gets placed where; the scene comes purely from his inventive mind, and the colors, from his emotional responses to the subject.  In that sense, there's nothing real about this painting at all.
Chagall, besides carrying on the Expressionist tradition into the 20th century, built off of earlier stylistic models from Symbolist artists like Paul Gauguin.  Gauguin had sought to make his art about the untouched paradise of exotic lands and the purity of the native peoples therein.  This movement was donned Primitivism, for it featured artists' rejection of traditional painting techniques and realistic renderings for stylized, simplified work like that of native peoples and children.  The Expressionist symbolism in La Mariée certainly makes reference to Primitivism with its violin-playing goats and literally flying fish—the stuff of children's fairy tales.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Cubism (pt. 5)

The broad, bleak sentiment of post-war life, as I humbly attempted to describe before, was a profound reality in the Western world during the 1920s and '30s.  In 1922, T. S. Eliot produced his famous poem The Waste Land, which would become a key, defining work of Modern literature.  Broken, disassembled, washed-out writing conveys deep themes of religion, politics, love, sociology, and language and the pervading sense of loss associated with each of those aspects in the poem.  Trying to find himself and world again after the destruction and devastation, the Modern poet found barely perceptible streams of light in an otherwise hopelessly dark world, remnants of an old truth that had been lost and, by all appearances, would never be regained.  In the poem, Eliot's persona finds himself lost in a shattered world where there is no solitary foundation of truth or principle, no safe refuge against the onslaught of the future, "no rock."  (The Postmodernists to follow would totally do away with hope and truth).  But the title of Eliot's work alone metaphorically conveys the predominant sentiments of writers, poets, and artists at this time; that all were now living in a Modern-age wasteland, abandoned, alone, and anonymous.
Mechanized brutality, the wars of nations, bloodshed, and genocide would continue into the 20th century.  After the bombing of Guernica in 1937 during the height of the Spanish Civil War, Picasso found the destruction almost too much to bear.  One of his most famous works, merely entitled Guernica, was produced that year as an outpouring of the terror, rage, sorrow, and incomprehensibility of war in the Modern world.
Violence, madness, and total ruin characterize the themes of this painting.  Here we are in an enclosed room, dark and colorless.  From the far left we see a bull, a mighty and powerful beast and one associated with the blood sacrifices of the Old Testament.  The bull's tongue is shaped pointy and narrow like a dagger, and the bull's tail on the left resembles a pillar of smoke as if from a fire.  About to be burned and cut, the bull stands facing a woman wailing over the death of her baby.  Perhaps this child's death is the "sin" for which the bull must be sacrificed and have its blood poured out.  The woman shrieks in agony with her head tilted back, facing the heavens, eyes broken apart, breasts hanging naked from her chest as she holds the dead body of her child in her hands.  Below that we see the scarred, open palm of a dismembered arm.  A decapitated head lies next to this; and further across, another arm grasping the hilt of a broken sword in rigor mortis.  Near the center of the work is a horse screaming in pain as its back is pierced by a spear.  A black-and-white gap mark splits open the horse's body and shows the wound.  In chaos, terror, and pain, the horse tramples over the dead body below it.  Another sharp object, perhaps a broken board or plank, slices into the horse's belly from beneath.  Overhead, there is a lamp mysteriously like an eye watching over the whole scene and bearing down over it like a bomb being dropped over the scene in Guernica.  To the right of it, a woman stretches her head and arm in from a window and holds a small flame (natural light next to the electric bulb) to the lamp in quizzical comparison or defiant opposition.  Below her is another woman who stumbles onto the scene with heavy feet and an awkward posture.  She gazes fixedly upwards toward the light, in search of hope amid the scene.  She comes from a darkness on the far right of the painting where another person is being engulfed in flame, arms out in agony and head raised to heaven in petition.  Nothing lies above him but an empty window; above that, only more flames.  From the clenched fist of the dismembered arm at the very bottom of the painting, under the dying horse's trampling feet, sprouts a tiny flower next to the broken sword.  We are given here an unforgettable image of the ravages of war, with only the smallest offering of hope to come from it.  In its Cubist style, everything is drawn as flat—dying figures overlap with live ones; live ones blend in with the dead.  The scene is staggering beyond expression, and that is the Modern conception of warfare.  Just over a year after this painting's completion, Adolf Hitler's paramilitary officers within the Nazi regime launched a series of attacks against the Jewish people of Germany and Austria in an overnight massacre, called Kristallnacht, which would launch the Jewish Holocaust.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Cubism (pt. 4)

It's worth note to examine the capabilities of the mind's eye in works such as Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and The Three Musicians.  Picasso was a painter who was very aware of how things looked (different from the Expressionists' concern with the feelings attached to a given subject), and through this arena of visual aesthetics he experimented with form, shape, and design.  His Cubist works demonstrate this; that he was interested in creating a specific image of an object which could convey a more geometrically accurate view.  Collage-style art helped him to better narrow down shapes into pure, linear constructs, as seen in The Three Musicians.  Eventually, he could narrow down the human face to pure shapes.  This image of the Head of a Woman, from 1927, shows the extremes of Cubism.
Most people associate Pablo Picasso with this sort of style because it made his art the most instantly recognizable of nearly any other style.  We can see this painting from afar and know that "it's a Picasso."  And, while it bothers many people, the style is actually not one that is too complicated to grasp.  Here we see the Head of a Woman, plain and simple.  This is an image of an enclosed space with two eyes, two nostrils, a mouth with teeth, and crowning hair on top.  It doesn't matter that the objects are totally distorted and misplaced; so long as all of the criteria are there, Cubism allows for the deformation of the subject in order to delve to the bottom of some element of greater verity, be it a visual, technical, or theoretical element.  Though we see something that looks different, this is no less the Head of a Woman than this more realistically drawn chalk-on-paper rendering of the same title, produced five years earlier.  On the flat tableau of the painter, both are equals in depiction of their subject.
The stunning realism of this work shows us Picasso's talent (as well as other works from various periods of the artist's life that show stunning accuracy and ability to paint well), and it reinforces the fact to us that the artist chose to paint the way he did, not for any lack of ability, but because he believed it theoretically significant to the development of art.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Cubism (pt. 3)

By 1921 the artist was employing the stylistic approaches within the medium of collage artworks in his paintings.  A collage involves adding other materials to the picture surface.  Although this work, The Three Musicians, is purely an oil-on-canvas painting, Picasso has mimicked the style of a collage as an extended form of Cubism.
We have descended here to simple shapes and colors, but our mind's eye can nevertheless pick out the finer details.  We see three musicians, one playing a saxophone, another on a guitar, and the third with a song sheet in his hands.  They sit or stand behind a table and on top of a rug in a small room.  Two holes for eyes have been given to each, as well as two feet, two hands (barely distinguishable), and each his own color scheme (implying costume dress).  The far-left musician even has a mustache.  This lively bunch of complementary colors strikes the viewer as an instantly characteristic trio of expressive people, simply drawn but brightly colorized to emphasize the vividness of their expression through music.  Jazz was coming into style at this time, thanks in part to the musical works of American composer George Gershwin, who seamlessly blended classical music with jazz and revolutionized the coming musical era.  And as eclectic as that musical genre can be, these three artists clash with their monotonous, brown background and even with each other.  White against black, blue against yellow, Picasso's approach to color vivifies the characters with more life than could be expressed through realist imagery.  Cubism has, in addition to deconstructing, rebuilt their image in a grander, though more simplistic, fashion.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Cubism (pt. 2)

This famous work of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, from 1907, shows five prostitutes.  There is no background to the painting, and each figure appears very flat and geometrically drawn onto the canvas.  They do not look realistic or even entirely human.  Two of them even have masks on to hide their faces.  Picasso has drawn them geometrically, with harsh linear structure that lends a tone of violence to their countenances; blank stares from their eyes cause them to resemble animalistic creatures, not people.  When painted in the Cubist style, they lose their realism, being stripped down to bare shapes and lines and colors; but the artist has implemented a little tonal nuance within his subject matter.  Why should prostitution be painted as glamorous?  Why should prostitutes be shown as pretty and poignant?  Here, the artist has done away with all pretenses of beauty.  Through the facial masks on the right and the woman's face on the left, the artist has made allusion to venereal diseases, some of which were believed to have come from Africa (the masks bear resemblance to works from African tribal art).  Not only is the Cubist technical approach attempting to portray the subject in a more comprehensively geometric and theoretically accurate way, the artist's treatment of the subject matter in the painting lend the work a sense of raw realism.  Prostitution is, after all, not the glamorous business which commercialists make it out to be, and there is something animalistic to be found in the practice.  And so, two figures hide their faces (and therefore hide their humanity), whilst another on the left has already begun to lose it.  Her face is discolored from the rest of her body, and her hand rests above her head in a disjointed pose.  The artist is making reference here to the sexually transmitted diseases which come with prostitution.  The two women on the right may bear similar (or worse) facial complexions, but they remain hidden under their masks.  The two women in the middle look out at the viewer indifferently.