Thursday, August 21, 2014

Surrealism (pt. 17)

This 1964 work by René Magritte is among the artist's most indelible images, paving the way for innumerable psychological and philosophical study and artistic imitation (not to mention innumerable parodies).  It's titled Son of Man, and it is, quite simply, a man whose face is covered by a floating apple.  Both the title and the background scenery (a short wall opens out to a broad, oceanic landscape and a cloudy sky behind the man) seem to impart an expansion of ideological context to this image; and yet, the actual scene is so tantalizingly simple, isn't it?  We can almost see the man's face—one of his eyes peeks through—but it's hidden by this random apple that absurdly floats in mid-air for seemingly no other purpose than to frustrate us.  The artist is here most straightforwardly playing with the inherent curiosity of the human brain.  As viewers, we look to this figure's face and yet are turned down by such a small thing.  It's as if we could just reach out and pull away the apple, and then finally be able to see the man's face.  But we can't; and forever the image is painted this way.  We don't care to see the apple; and yet that is, ironically, put before the man.  It's totally absurd, and is intentionally so in order to enact this experiment on the eye's preference and selectiveness of vision.  Our mind chooses to focus on the man and views the apple as secondary—hey, maybe it's supposed to be a simple still life of a floating apple into which an intruding figure has stumbled.  Regardless, we look to the man for subject matter and meaning.  Meditations such as this reflect the Surrealist attention to perceptions of normalcy in society.  By adding just such a little, simple thing as an apple in the right place (or wrong place, I suppose), a formality within the practice of vision is undermined.  In art, a medium of images, we are finally presented with an artist's denial of an image.  This not only goes against the rules of painting technique but it maddens audiences to the point of distraction.  Nonetheless, Magritte makes his point, does he not?  This seemingly simple painting becomes one of the hardest images for us to look at and accept in our study of the history of art, and it has nothing to do with the apple, but rather what the apple conceals.
And yet, after reading the title, aren't we left feeling that maybe the apple does have something to do with the subtle profundity of this image?  The mysteriously floating apple becomes a spiritual symbol of a religious idea, a doctrinal precept lending possible interpretation to the scene.  Is this a statement on original sin?  Does this unqualified man, in his anonymity, take on the identity of Adam because of his relation to the apple?  Or maybe this is a projection of our own human blindness—that the curse of the forbidden fruit stands between ourselves and every other human being when we try to interact with our fellow man.  Inasmuch as floating apples don't exist in the real world (except, I suppose, on the International Space Station), maybe this apple isn't a real object at all but merely a psychological projection of our own subconscious.  Or, conversely, what if the apple is in front of the man's face because that is really all that matters—as if to say that one's individual struggles with sin or temptation are the only relevant incidents in the human experience, and none of us can ever really relate, one human being to another, except within that common context of lineage or "sonship" to Adam?  At any rate, this Surrealist painting displays in extraordinary simplicity one of the most vividly contrasting images in Western art history.  Isn't it ironic that this produce from the Tree of Knowledge should in fact conceal knowledge, vision, and interpersonal relationship?  Perhaps art, too, hides more than it shows; and a painting gets in the way of some imminent reality that just slightly escapes us.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Surrealism (pt. 16)

Magritte painted two versions of The Listening Room (of which this is the 1958 version), an image of an enormous apple occupying the space of an entire room.  This continues to be one of the artist's most enticing paintings to analyze.
The apple is either humongous or the room is tiny.  One is an impossibility, but the other is simply inexplicable.  If this is indeed an "apple-sized room" (haha…sorry, that's funny to say), then where are we, the made-up land of Lilliput?  The presence of the window on the left makes this mystery all the more tantalizing; for we would surely be able to tell where we are if we could only get a glimpse outside this window.  But the artist has cut that section off of the painting.  We are instead left with a closed room which appears to contain no doors.  How did we get in this enclosed space?  What's more, how did the apple get here?  It is thrown into this scene without explanation—and yet our mind tells us what we are seeing and instantly tries to resolve the chaos of the situation.  The room looks normal enough; the apple looks normal enough—it's just, their relation is utterly incompatible.  And this is called The Listening Room, strangely enough, evoking an entirely new context under which to view the artwork.  Neither the walls of the room nor the apple would make noise, would they?  So, theoretically, this scene should be one of silence.  Then…what are we "listening" to?  This painting appears to be all a visual puzzle, so how could the sensation of sound bear any relevance whatsoever to this scene?  And yet, our reaction to the painting changes when we hear the title, doesn't it?  We become aware of the quietness of this scene—a ridiculous awareness, since this painting has practically nothing to do with sound.  The absurdity of Surrealist paintings such as The Listening Room afforded artistic expression to a growing Absurdist literary movement, which peaked in the famous writings of Algerian-French writer/philosopher Albert Camus.  In Postmodernism, the movement became fully realized in the advent of Existentialism.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Surrealism (pt. 15)

René Magritte often dressed around in a suit and bowler cap as an expression of individuality and personal style among the art community.  This formality was part of the artist's charm and wit to impress upon others a deceptive pretence of simplicity, when in fact his art contained some of the most cerebral and complex themes to grasp.  Not like Salvador Dalí, who adopted eccentric mannerisms, fashions, and behaviors in public to further promote his style of Surrealism, Magritte took pleasure in fooling the crowd with seemingly ordinary formality and blending in, as it were, with the rest of the world—but not quite.
This painting, Golconda, is named after a historical city in India which now rests preserved near the modern city of Hyderabad.  The scene of the painting appears to be one associated more with European suburban settings, featuring plain-looking apartment-type buildings.  It's an unexceptional day with cloudless skies and no indication of disturbance.  In fact, there seems to be nothing abnormal about this painting at all, just not taking into account that it is populated with floating men.  Whether they are falling like rain or simply levitating in mathematical equidistance, these figures compose a crowd.  And, like most crowds which one can find oneself in, there is more to this crowd than meets the eye.
Besides the interest in their odd placement along the canvas in geometric symmetry (and the fact that they're just standing in mid-air), the intrigue of this painting is the optical illusion of perceiving a subtle difference when handed a grandiose one.  We at first notice men scattered about in the sky, and their abundant sequence communicates uniformity.  In truth, they are all wearing similar costumes, but actually Magritte has painted each man individually.  What at first looks like a cut-and-paste-type replication practice proves in fact to be an experiment in cognition.  Do we see individual men when we first look at this painting, or do we instantly see a collection of identical, floating males wearing the same kind of suit and bowler cap?  Their spatial layout in the scene even fools our eyes from noticing that several of the men are facing different directions.  They are different heights and of differing builds, with unique facial features—but all we notice is that they are standing on air.  The mind, in that sense, leaps to the surreal; it first pays attention to the abnormal and only after the fact perhaps takes into account the practical, the ordinary, and the realistic.  And, if we're really paying close attention, we'll finally notice the unusual background—particularly the strange façade of the building on the right.  Its uppermost row of windows is cut off in an architectural anomaly of design.  The building ends too soon.  But how many of us spotted that when we first took a look at this painting?  Your brain is stunned by the sight of the floating men and yet doesn't seem to fully notice the men or the scene which they inhabit.  What is it about the surreal that our minds instantly connect to, though it be totally foreign or utterly incomprehensible?  The Surrealists explored this connection with fervor in the early half of the 20th century.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Surrealism (pt. 14)

This reflective painting from 1933 is titled The Human Condition.
Once again, this is a philosophical trick, like an optical illusion for the brain as well as the eye.  We see a painted canvas perfectly matching up with the image seen out of an open window.  The canvas replaces the reality.  (Of course, what is behind that canvas could be totally different, and only matched up to the edges—for instance, there might be no tree in the real landscape out the window; but we can't know, since the painting covers it).  The thick curtains drawn back on either side of the window make allusion to theatricality and may imply that everything out the window is merely a show, which the canvas then copies (producing a fiction within a fiction).  But this is all canvas; the whole thing is a painting, created by artist René Magritte.  So…what reality is this painting covering up or mimicking?  Does art, as the saying goes, imitate life?  But this is a painting.  So it's not real; it's every bit as much of a lie as the canvas within itself.  Is the concept, therefore, pretend as well?  Ouf!  It's psychological quicksand to enter into these paintings, is it not?  Fun to discuss, and I enjoy it; but at times, utterly incomprehensible.  …I guess that's "the human condition," right?  (Haha)

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Surrealism (pt. 13)

We'll start with his most famous painting, entitled The Treachery of Images, completed in 1929.  This Surrealist work shows a pipe with the words below (written in French): "This is not a pipe."
It's not a pipe.  It is an image of a pipe.  What Magritte has painted on the canvas is a two-dimensional representation of a real object.  So, the art has lied to us, correct?  He's shown us a "pipe," but it's not really a pipe; it's just an image of one.  (Pretty simple, right?)  But if the art is indeed "treacherous," then why the confessional inscription?  The same painting telling us with an image that we are seeing a pipe is telling us with words that a pipe is most certainly not what we are seeing.  This is blatant self-contradiction.  One might ask why the artist bothered to paint the image of the pipe if he was only going to counter-argue his own drawing.  Besides, the human eye can tell that's not really a pipe.  We know it when we see the painting hanging up in a museum—that it's the not the real object it is depicting.  Very well, what about the words, then?  What about the concept?  After all, the words telling us that the pipe is not a pipe are just painted words on a canvas as well—perhaps they are just part of "the show."  This is "the treachery of images."  Our eye can discern the pipe from the painting, but our mind cannot determine reality from abstraction—perhaps the artist means to suggest there is no reality but in abstraction, or vice-versa.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Surrealism (pt. 12)

If dreams, fantasy, and the subconscious serve as the inspiration for Surrealism, then what significance is to be found in things which aren't real?  Wouldn't we better spend our time looking at images corresponding to realities, such as the great historical paintings, like Jacques-Louis David's Oath of the Tennis Court?  The truth is that Surrealist artists saw a truth to be found within the subconscious—not just from a Freudian perspective but for the sake of art as well.  Like Manet, these artists sought to paint what they saw as the truth (albeit a different kind of truth, or with different approaches).  The deconstructive agenda of the prior generation—of the Dadaists and the Abstract and Non-Objective painters—was expanded with the Surrealists into a broader agenda not only commenting on art but reality itself.  Many of these paintings make overt and direct commentary on the nature of life and the human condition.  This can come about through the Surreal since our subconscious already works within a level of cognizance outside of the parameters of reality.  In other words, these confusing paintings address our minds in more direct ways than any other art we have looked at so far, because they directly call upon and engage that latent aspect of our psyche which communicates best through art: the subconscious.
René Magritte became famous for challenging the human eye to look at otherwise ordinary objects and scenes in different lights and different contexts.  His playful distortion of reality and perception commented on the expanding potential for creativity within the arts but also carried intriguing implications for philosophy and sociology in the real world.  The artist himself viewed his work as a means of exploring the truth about the human experience.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Surrealism (pt. 11)

This is a painting by Salvador Dalí that directly addresses the earlier Romantic artwork looked at, the Angelus by Jean-François Millet.  Here Dalí is criticizing it.  The basic shapes of Millet's original work remain intact, but you might say that the substance has completely been replaced.  These are no longer people; they're "archeological reminiscences."  Trees are growing on them like the ruins to some old castle—there are even birds perching and flying around them.  They are still standing in a field, but it's no longer the field of a farm.  No plants grow here; we are in some kind of desert.  There is no steeple in the background.  The sky is dramatically lit in the dim light of dusk again, but now there are clouds and a sickly-colored smog filling the air.  Everything's changed.  And, what is most shocking, Dalí has added the birds and a few onlookers to give perspective to the two central Angelus-inspired subjects—they're huge.  These two stone or brick constructions are towering above what appears to be an adult and a child, holding hands (probably a child and parent) in the bottom center of the work.  The parent stretches out its arm at the scene, as if showing and explaining to the child all about this image.  It's like a monument people go and look at—and that, in his derisive criticism, is what Salvador Dalí describes art as having become.
Paintings like Millet's Angelus had become staple works of historically acclaimed art by the time Dalí painted this.  Future generations are trained to learn from and expound upon the past.  As we have been studying art, we have seen a progression of art from stylistic period to stylistic period, a sequence of evolution in which no single genre can be understood out of its context (precisely why a comprehensive study of art history is so vital to understanding art).  In that sense, then, artists have been building off of previous generations of artists for centuries not merely because it is a phenomenon taught to young artists within the culture of educational development but also because it is a thing fundamentally connected with the medium throughout history.  But there is a danger of "institutionalizing" art in a way that, at least as Dalí characterized it, makes a spectacle of it, which stands on display in some sterilized museum warehouse for a few people to come and blankly gaze at a few days out of the year.  It loses its value and meaning.  It hollows out into a tourist attraction or decays into a recreational monument, like these two statues.  (Significantly, the left figure is literally hollowed out with openings resembling windows).  But, more egregiously than anything else, it removes a work from its original context and begs for it to be equally appreciated in a totally new environment.  Well, Dalí saw the Angelus as a work incompatible with the reality of the Modern world.  The once-verdant field has become a waste land, both literally in the painting and, in the metaphoric sense, historically in the real world.  Ravaged by industrialization and world war, artists like Dalí couldn't see the old Romanticism of beauty in nature as it once had been.  It didn't fit with the contemporary world as they knew and understood it.  In other words, Millet was outdated (hence, the ruins, overgrown trees, nesting birds, and ominous sky).  The two statues have grown out of proportion and extremely large in the symbolic sense like Millet's canonized masterpiece has grown historically as one of art history's staple inventions, but in reaching such enormous size, they've lost their fleshiness and turned into cracked, rotting "archaeological reminiscences" that cast ominous, rather than reassuring, shadows over onlookers.  They stand as completely out-of-place objects in their world.  Is this the death of art?
Perhaps it's more.  Surrealists such as Dalí saw not only the corruption of true art in the Modern world but the corruption of the old thematic principles of art, such as those present in the original Angelus.  You will recall the original painting had very strong religious implications; the two figures were bowing in prayer, with a church steeple in the distance to throw a Christian tone over the whole scene.  But these two figures aren't praying; they're not even people.  They are just stone constructions, incapable of prayer, of thought, of feeling, or of any intelligence.  They're not doing anything (the original two were farmers), and there is no steeple to set the scene in context.  Perhaps it's the old devotion to Christian faith that has been hollowed out, and this, more than the art criticisms, is what makes Millet outdated, incompatible, and no longer legitimate in the Modern world.  This painting conveys a profound loss of innocence and a "withdrawal of faith."  In an earth no longer producing the good fruit of men's labors but instead one which has become desolate in the wake of early 20th century world war and industrial devastation—perhaps in this world, there is no longer any God to turn to.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Surrealism (pt. 10)

His 1937 painting of the Metamorphosis of Narcissus is typical of the style to which he devoted himself throughout his life.  This subject is taken from Classical mythology, which tells of Narcissus, a hunter who was tricked into looking at the beautiful reflection of his own face in a pool, the attraction to which paralyzed him from ever leaving the pool and, consequently, kept him there indefinitely, until his death on the spot.  Dalí's painting shows Narcissus on the left, a golden statue-like monument, frozen stiff with head bowed over a stagnant pool of water.  The background landscape of the setting is dramatized with cliffs and mountains and threatening storm clouds.  Several naked figures can be seen marching or dancing in the background along some path leading up to the horizon, perhaps in the middle of some kind of pagan ritual (which would fit with the Classical subject matter).  On the right is another statuesque form that looks similar to the Narcissus on the left but, upon closer observation, actually looks more like a hand coming up out of the ground and holding an egg, from which blooms a flower.  Ants crawl up this hand, perhaps symbolizing once again the ravages of time and the imminent plunder of other assailing entities (albeit very small).  The egg and blossoming flower have long been connected with Freudian sexual imagery, as well as the sinuous forms of the two statuesque objects.  (Narcissus was held to be of extremely beautiful appearance in Ancient Greek mythology; to portray his image with phallic symbols is extremely Freudian).  On the far right, a dog chews a piece of bloody meat (another symbol of ravaged devastation and decay).  A painting like this may reference Classical mythology, but it tells the story through modern psychology and Freudian metaphors.  Surrealism often takes subjects out of their original context to present them from different angles, leading to new interpretations.  Here we see blatant and eerie allusions to sexual innuendo.  As Narcissus stares, frozen, into the pool to look at the beauty of his own reflection, we as viewers mimic the act by looking into the painting.  But the "beauty" we see has been converted into sexual images and unsettling references to decay and deterioration—that these characterize our world now and are what make the old myths relevant to us today.  Still, paintings like these tend to insist on eluding comprehensive interpretation, not to sound dismissive.  It's just weird.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Surrealism (pt. 9)

Salvador Dalí once said, "The difference between a madman and myself is that I am not mad."
Dalí enjoyed the controversy he caused with his artwork and his unusual behavior.  He is still today probably the most famous Surrealist painter, and the interpretation of his works continues to be a subject of debate in the art world as well as the sector of human psychology.  Dalí's artwork usually represents his exploration of his own dreams and the mixed up memories in dreams.  There is a definite Freudian influence in many of these paintings, and the artist's attention to symbolism carried on throughout his career.  These are among the strangest paintings we will have looked at thus far, but not because they are totally abstract—they blend in with realism so well, and yet are so alien to our understanding, that their effect is one of Surrealism.
Probably the artist's most famous creation is this 1931 artwork entitled The Persistence of Memory.  We are once again entering into a fantasy environment in which the artist has taken individual liberties which defy logic and physics.  In the background on the left, we see a shelf of the sea taken out of the rest of the background seascape; and it has been raised on a platform above ground.  This is impossible, but the artist can get away with it on his canvas—because it's his world, his creation.  He reigns supreme here, with complete freedom and power and transcendence—maybe suggesting more than we initially realize.
Dalí created an eerie world in which death and decay are symbolized by a dead tree and a strange sea monster decomposing on a deserted beach.  Ants swarm over a watch in an unsuccessful attempt to eat it.  The droopy clocks, the painting's most enduring image, sag across the dead animal, the dead tree, and the unidentified platform on the left.  These clocks almost seem to be decaying along with everything else in the painting (except for the insects).  A bizarre situation in lighting focuses all of the sunlight (assuming it's sunlight) to the far background of the scene, illuminating distant cliffs and the horizon line of the sea on the right.  The rest of the painting is covered in shadow, as if to imply imminent nightfall.  The way the clocks sag and droop may indicate that a lot of time has passed; the way the dead sea animal lies alone along the beach, far from the shore, seems to show that it has been lying there a long time.  Furthermore, there are no people, and the entire expanse of the landscape appears to be untouched by human life.  Perhaps this is a post-apocalyptic image of time after death.  The insect presence in the work also adds to the tone of decay, since generally creatures within the hexapoda subphylum (the most populous of land animals) tend to represent rotting or decomposing earth in an overrun sense.  I've known evolutionary biologists who say, for instance, that humans will eventually die out to be replaced by insects who will then take over the earth.  (Whatever.)  It would appear, then, in this painting by Dalí that time has laid waste to everything—everything except time itself.  For time alone is indestructible in the structure of our cosmos.  These limp watches don't decay—but neither are they unbendable.  Their minute and hour hands twist and hang from the center, vulnerable to influence (though perhaps not that of the insects).  It's like they're made of paper—or paint, perhaps?  You see, by painting clocks, the symbol of time, in such manipulated forms, the artist has taken control of time in the visual but also the thematic sense.  Dalí is suggesting that artists alone can conquer time and achieve immortality through their medium, whilst the tiny scavengers (critics?) cannot get at them.  This painting has survived long after his death and carries on a piece of his ideology into the 21st century with it.  This is the "persistence of memory."  Here we are, still studying his artwork long after he has himself passed away.  What does that mean for art?  Is it something outside of the realm of time and space, outside, then, of the physics of the cosmos?  If so, such an entity should surely be labeled "surreal."

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Surrealism (pt. 8)

It was works such as the Harlequin that helped make the Spanish artist a major figure in 20th century art, but Miró's later paintings turned more stylistically to Surrealist abstraction, as in his Women Encircled by the Flight of a Bird, from 1941.
You have to look really close at this painting to find the women and the path of the bird's flight, but trust me, they are there.  Large triangles indicate the women's dresses—the problem is that the lines of the triangles are drawn so thinly that you can barely see them.  There are at least three women and a cat in the painting (the cat in the bottom right corner) which I can see—and I had help from my art history teacher.  The black hourglass shapes which surround the work could refer to the flapping wings of the bird, and the other squiggly lines indicate the bird's "encircling" flight pattern around the elusive women.  What at first looks abstract begins to barely tinge with reality, or a faint wisp of reality.  So, it's not Abstract Art; the subject is there to be seen (and in the title).  It's not Non-Objective, but the strangeness of presentation takes us into a fantastical world of colors and shapes.  Perhaps this is the surrealistic experience of looking into a painting.  For when we look at art we are looking for extracted details close to or resembling reality but which exist in a fictional, two-dimensional world of visual reception and cognition.  And you may look at paintings such as this and never know what you are really seeing (in this case, shapes of women and a fluttering bird).  This can be true thematically as well—in other words, what the artist means or intends to convey through the bird and women—and other artists would delve into these concepts further.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Surrealism (pt. 7)

Surrealism is an art style in which dreams, fantasy, and the subconscious serve as inspirations for art.  As a form of Expressionism, this art still presents abstract subjects but does so through identifiable objects, instead of broader, Non-Objective Art, like that of Kandinsky.  The Surrealist movement took inspiration from Dada art and began to manifest itself around the late 1920s.  Through the onset of World War II and even continuing after 1945, artists took to rejecting logic and chose to paint the world of dreams and the subconscious.
Among the first to introduce this new style was the Spanish painter Joan Miró.  His early work demonstrated a crossing over from Non-Objective Art into Surrealist art.  In this 1925 painting of his, the Carnival of Harlequin, unidentified shapes fill the canvas with bizarre energy and utterly incomprehensible thematic content.
The subjects are unidentifiable, but not so unidentifiable as Kandinsky's Sky Blue.  Musical notes, a window, various animal-like creatures, and a gloved hand can be discerned within the scene, among other things.  Mostly these things look similar or vaguely reminiscent to something within reality but are so distorted and falsely pigmented that we can't tell what they are.  There would seem to be a ladder on the far left, stretching back toward the wall in the background, but it's not completely right and doesn't look like a real ladder.  Spheres appear in the scene, but we do not know what they represent.  We can almost get a sense of what we're looking at, but it's still distinct from reality.  This would later develop fully into the quality of the Surreal, which takes from reality (not like Abstract Art, which is pure blankness of subject matter) and merely distorts it into abstraction of connection or logic.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Surrealism (pt. 6)

This painting, Self-Portrait as a Wounded Deer, beautifully bridges Expressionism and Surrealism.  We are looking at a made-up scene, one not from nature or reality.  This is Frida Kahlo's own vision, and in that vision she has poured her emotional feelings and expression of self-identity.  Within a claustrophobic forest of barren, broken, and sinister-looking trees, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, we see a stag leaping over a fallen branch.  The stag bears the face of Frida Kahlo, looking back out at the viewer with solemn stoicism.  The artist herself, having suffered from severe leg injuries as a result of her experience with polio and the horrible bus accident to follow, displays this as an ironic image, since her own legs could not function as well as an ordinary human being's, let alone those of a deer.  But here she is in the painting as a stag with the agility and strength to leap across a wide path through a forest.  But this deer has been pierced by numerous arrows, from which wounds pour streams of blood.  As a work of Expressionism, this painting captures like few others the artist's feelings of pain—physical pain.  This is the product of her nearly thirty-five operations and frequent and painful stays in hospitals which lasted her entire life.  Eventually, shortly before her death, the artist's right leg had to be amputated on account of gangrene, causing Kahlo immense emotional turmoil and severe depression.  In the back of this painting, over an oceanic horizon, Kahlo alludes to her own misgivings about her steadily deteriorating conditions through the symbolism of the thunder and stormy cloud which appear faint off in the distance but seem to pierce the landscape of the deer's world no less violently than the arrows piercing her own body in the foreground.  This is a fantasy painting, but very real suffering is being depicted here.  We can see it, and perhaps the surrealism of the scene helps to bring us closer to the reality of what Frida Kahlo is expressing.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Surrealism (pt. 5)

After her remarriage to Diego Rivera, the artist created this calmer portrait simply called Me and My Parrots.  There is a certain quality to self-expression in art that makes stark images like this one instantly memorable.  Picasso's style of Cubist disarray and geometric deconstruction may be recognizable, but Frida Kahlo's self-portraits are individualistic, not necessarily speaking directly to the elements of art theory but transcending the medium to say something, each and every time, about herself.  The image of Frida Kahlo is here painted as a vividly stark, bare, and almost harsh icon of personality, individualism, and identity.  Her eye contact with the viewer is instantly striking; her blunt brushwork, exaggerated facial features, and menagerie of exotic parrots creates a totally foreign environment to us (even though this is merely a self-portrait) which we almost can't enter.  Though painted in a visually realistic way like the old Dutch portraitists, this work is anything but accessible.  It's a strange portrait with almost surreal qualities, and it seems more to look out at us than we look into it.  This is the expression of self in all its matchless individuality and uniqueness.  The self is surreal.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Surrealism (pt. 4)

This work, entitled The Two Fridas, demonstrates her style of Surreal Expressionism.  In a weird setting of storm clouds (but painted up-close like wallpaper on a wall), we see seated on a bench two mirror images of the artist holding hands with each other.  The one on the left is clothed fancily in white, connotative of a wedding dress or other festive attire, whereas the Frida on the right is wearing more casual and traditionally Mexican clothing.  A blood transfusion appears to be happening between the two, as we see a cross section of both of their hearts connected by a single vein that stretches across the gulf of stormy background weather.  The heart on the left is hollowed out and bloodless, but the heart on the right appears healthy and well.  On the left, the Frida with the torn open dress holds a pair of scissors in her hand with which she snips open another vein of her heart, causing blood to spill out onto her lap.  The other holds in her free hand a tiny portrait of Diego Rivera.  The artist painted The Two Fridas in 1939, the year in which Rivera and she divorced.  Through graphic imagery and the overall unsettling tone of the scene, Kahlo conveys a bit of the ongoing passion and pain, both physical and emotional, which she felt at this time in her life.  Also helping to convey the intensity of her feelings is the daunting canvas itself, 67" x 67", one of the artist's largest creations.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Surrealism (pt. 3)

In 1929, Diego Rivera married the young and developing artist Frida Kahlo, who had been an admirer of the Mexican muralist's work as well as his political views.  Shortly after, Kahlo painted a wedding portrait in which she and her husband stand stiffly, hand in hand, looking at viewers with formality and rigidity.  Their faces show no joy and contain an uncertainty about the future.  This portrait, along with the numerous photographs of the pair, would become a famous, or infamous, symbol of the couple's relationship.  It was public knowledge that their marriage was marked by bitter quarrels and numerous affairs.  Ten years later, the two divorced but then remarried the following year, in 1940.
Frida Kahlo was a lifelong sufferer of medical problems.  As a child she had contracted polio and was left, as a result, with damaged legs (probably the reason why she is always seen wearing long dresses in her photographs).  In 1925 the young artist was involved in a horrific bus accident that severely injured her and would bind her to frequent hospitalization for the rest of her life.  With a broken spine and pelvis, not only was Kahlo frequently confined to bed and unable to move easily, but she lived in almost constant pain.  Furthermore, the injuries she sustained left her unable to successfully give birth; although she conceived three times, each pregnancy was terminated as a result of her medical condition.
The artist also had, most famously, a unibrow which she personally thought ugly.  It's included in all of her self-portraits as a humbling and self-deprecating reminder of her own presumed unattractiveness, another expression of the pain she felt within her medical and sheer human condition.
Kahlo used art to express her own personal feelings.  This is Expressionism, but her works often include fantasy-like images that really make her the first Surrealist woman artist.  With her art, she rose to prominence at a time when few women were taken seriously.  She mainly created self-portraits (conducive to self-expression), and she often painted solely as a function through which to express her pain.  Sometimes she painted herself as being calm and content, while other times she revealed profound physical anguish in her artwork.  Often painting in hospitals and frequently bedridden, Kahlo had to paint lying down with a special easel that was fitted to the bed and a mirror with which to look at herself.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Surrealism (pt. 2)

In 1932, the artist was commissioned to paint a 63-foot-long mural in the lobby of the new Rockefeller Center in New York.  The mural was to capture the spirit of a new generation advancing into the bright future of a new era and would be titled Man at the Crossroads.  Rivera was very controversial for his Communist views and created an image radically opposed to Rockefeller's notions of the American future.  His mural attracted public controversy and disapproval during its creation.  Before the mural's completion, the Rockefellers paid Rivera for his services but subsequently banned him from the building and ordered the artist's unfinished work to be destroyed.  Rivera left and recreated the piece in the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City in 1934, but he never worked in the United States again.  The finished mural he called Man, Controller of the Universe.
At the bottom left we see a small assembly of animals next to a human baby.  An unidentified body is laid across a kind of dissection table while another, hidden person stands behind an x-ray screen; and the figure of Charles Darwin stands over them, his face placed next to the screen displaying a human skull.  The x-ray machine and monitor are fitted with impressive (and daunting) gadgetry that makes allusion to the Industrial Revolution and modern scientific development of the period.  The heavy piece of equipment is made of dark metal and threatening black knobs which rise at the top like two horns.  And if the top of the machine is something of a "head" of its own (ironically, because its x-ray face displays the skeleton of a human), then it has been fitted with a hat in between the two "horns"—a large knob shaped like a Nazi helmet.  To the right of this strange and unsettling scene are a group of interracial children, seated in rows like students in a classroom.  Behind them is an image of the metropolitan public, poor and rioting, with riot police attacking them on horseback.  The seated children all hold their heads up to gaze through a giant, telescopic lens that points directly to the center of the mural.  On the left and above these scenes, rising up from the x-ray machine, is a towering Classical statue of Zeus.  He is brandishing his characteristic thunderbolt, but his hands have fallen off and a crucifix necklace has been put around his neck (an inappropriate anachronism for the Ancient Greek pagan deity).  From this out-of-place, Christianized Zeus pour forth World War I soldiers in gas masks, carrying bayonets and wielding flame-throwers while tanks and bomber planes swell the background of the scene.  In a pocket on the left-hand side and centered near the middle is a nightclub scene featuring a crowd of women wearing low-cut dresses and John D. Rockefeller (Rockefeller Jr.'s father) drinking alcohol among them—despite his public support of the United States' prohibition laws.  Moving over to the right side of the mural, we see a Communist rally underway as Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx, and Leon Trotsky stand around a red banner.  In front of them, a line of working-class men sits on old artillery materials and the dismembered head of a broken statue.  They also gaze intently into a giant lens as if expectant of an answer.  Above this scene stands another Classical statue with an engraved swastika, whose head has fallen off (some of the working-class men at the bottom are sitting on it).  Behind this statue stands the Soviet community, carrying red flags and organized in an ordered file.  In a small pocket on the middle-right-hand side is the controversial image of Vladimir Lenin laying his hands on the masses—and to the right of that scene, a glimpse of an Aryan race of white-clothed athletes advancing forward.  In the middle of the mural stands a titanic machine with parts resembling a microscope, an engine, an irrigation pipe, a clock, and a naval steering wheel.  A pipe at the bottom plants itself into the earth, where a lush and bounteous soil produces plants of several different varieties, all of which bear ripe fruits and vegetables.  Two microscope trays flank each other, pointing in the four directions of the mural's four edges.  On one tray are illustrations of the cosmos, comets, stars, and planets; the other tray shows the tissue of the human cell.  From one central pipe a mysterious and powerful hand holds out an orb which, according to the artist, displays the schematics of atomic chemistry and cellular biology.  Sitting in control of it all, the great, overarching machine of the 20th century, is a working-class man with a stoic face.
Typical to his style, Rivera lays out a story in his mural, this one a metaphoric account of the Modern Age.  The "crossroads" is a symbolic crossroads of industry, science, socialism, and capitalism.  This heavily iconographic mural tells Rivera's story of mankind's entrance into the new, Modern Era, and his symbolism bears philosophical implications on the proposed pathway for man's continuance beyond the crossroads.  The revolution of Communism occurring on the right side of the work clashes with the bleak picture on the left; and Rivera's stoic proletarian leads the way in the center.  (In contrast, the mural which now stands as a replacement of Rivera's original artwork in the Rockefeller Center is entitled American Progress and contains the figures of Mahatma Gandhi, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Abraham Lincoln.)

Friday, August 1, 2014

Surrealism (pt. 1)

During this time the first modern mural paintings in Mexico were being produced by Diego Rivera.  His work would launch the Mexican Mural Movement.  Mexican muralism featured works that were public property and meant for the people, not the walls of museums.  Similar to the public displays of the old Renaissance frescos, many of Rivera's works were commissioned paintings for municipal centers; and like the Renaissance artists, Rivera frequently used his art to tell stories.  The artist in fact studied the great Italian frescos and imitated their style in form and technique, but he chose to depict the struggle of the Mexican peasant as his theme.  This bent towards Realism did not keep the artist from infusing his works with personally expressive elements.  For instance, his works often appear simplified, caricature-esque, and unrealistic.  The muralist chose this function specifically to focus his paintings on story-telling, in a similar fashion to the Medieval illuminated manuscripts we looked at which centered around religious tales and parables and did not heed much attention to artistic realism.  But, in place of more devout subject matter, Diego Rivera honed in on the various aspects of Mexican culture, the lives of the Mexican peasantry, and stories of revolution, native traditions, festivals, and legends.
This painting is entitled Flower Carrier, and it humbly depicts just that.  We see a peasant slumped over while carrying an enormous basket of flowers tied around his back—or perhaps he is leaning over while the woman behind him fastens the burden to his back with gentle hands.  The artist has painted everything in the scene with warm, soft colors.  The two figures are drawn rather simply, as cartoon-like people.  Half of the man's face is covered, and the woman turns her head to the work being performed: these are humble, unassuming peasants who devotedly keep to their tasks with quiet tranquility.  But there is something shockingly unnerving about the painting; and it's the flower basket.  Larger than both figures, the flower basket takes up the bulk of the center of the painting as a goliath object of incredible mass.  In reality, this would be backbreaking labor—and such was not far from the reality of the lives of the Mexican lower class at this time.  It makes perfect sense that the carrier should slump to the ground under the weight; in fact it's surprising that he does not completely collapse.  And the woman appears to help without a strain to her muscles, as if she is barely lifting a feather.  The flowers, too, stay neatly in order although the basket has tipped considerably.  The intensity of the scene is muted, softened, stylized (similar to Gauguin's Yellow Christ).  He paints a struggling flower carrier with subtle colors and barely a wrinkle to his clothes.  He paints with delicate form the burdensome flowers that are suffocating the poor peasant and bringing him to his knees.  The basket looks as light as a cotton ball, creating a vivid contrast that infuses his work with such a memorable level of energy.