Art Deco Architecture in Paris: Robert Mallet-Stevens, Part Two

Robert Mallet-Stevens (1885-1945)

The Architect of Art Deco, Part Two

The semiotics of Robert Mallet-Stevens was completely different from those of the other modern architects, such as Mies van der Rohr. The radical modern architects were dedicated to building for the masses, providing affordable housing for them, buildings that, grouped together, became contemporary villages, prefabricated, assembled out of modules, they were meant to improve society as a whole. In contrast, the clients of Mallet-Stevens were avant-garde and wealthy and artistic and the villas he built for them were meant to display the elevated social position of the inhabitants. His architectural accomplishments were signs of privilege and elegance, shining in the sun, expansive in their display of distinction. Begun a year after the Villa Poiret at Mézy-sur-Seine, Yvelines, the Villa Noailles was started in 1924 at Hyères. the Vicomte and Vicomtesse de Noailles were close friends of Jean Cocteau and were the kind of owners excited to work with a cutting-edge architect who, not so incidentally, had no particular connections with socialism or Communism and no obvious desire to change the world. This large villa was also precisely situated on a hill with a magnificent view of the town below, stretching out towards the horizon. What is striking about both homes is their large and expansive size, the gardens that are enclosed within a structure where its grounds were carefully laid out in a grid pattern punctuated with lushly planted with trees and grass.

Villa Noailles in 1929 Photographe: Thérèse Bonney

The most notable garden at Hyères, completed in 1928 was triangular cubist inspired design by Gabriel Guevrekian (1872-1970), who was one of the stars of the Paris Fair of 1925.

This villa is characterized by contrasting textures on the exterior slabs, some of which are rough and some are quite smooth in contrast. The Villa Noailles has expanses of blank unbroken walls, giving it a more closed in and shuttered look from the outside, keeping the openness of the interior spaces a secret. Inside, the architect was apparently unable to bear the blank wall and frequently used indents, created squared insets or niches to break up the flat expanse, causing long walls to be framed like cabinets. Robert Mallet-Stevens, also a set designer, had written an article “Le Cinéma et les arts: Architecture,” in 1925 explaining the idea of repetition in film. “Architecture plays,” he said, indicating that architecture had to be a “player” in the film by doubling the narrative or the reappearance of certain motifs throughout the film. In the movies, such reoccurrences were termed photogénie. It is clear that this idea of restating a theme was also the architect’s method of design–an eclectic and inclusive combining of modern art movements and modern architectural theories. For example, the ceilings are adorned with glass lit soffits with the De Stijl grids demarcating the light streaming down.

When he was asked in 1928 by the owner to make a film about the home, the repetition of obdurate cubic form inspired the photographer and sometime filmmaker, Man Ray (1890-1976). Ray, eying the tumbling squares, stilled by blank surfaces, thought of the famous poem by Stéphane Mallarmé, Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hazard of 1897, and reimagined that the poem with the die as a house. The idea of a thrown di, rolling across the landscape became the theme of his 1929 film Les Mystères du château du dé.

The Villa Noailles today

A Robert Mallet-Stevens interior was always more elaborated than one by Le Corbusier or by Gropius simply because there were more shapes, a multiplication of edges. An interior staircase allowed him to show off the zig-zag progression of the stairs rising up a straight ascent or, in a tight space, stairs could be tucked into a tight curve or folded into the side of a cone shape. The Villa Cavrois, a later work of 1932 of which more will be said later, had unique dining room furniture, a long wooden table, and many wooden chairs, resting on a parquet floor of zebra wood squares. The wall is broken with beams of zebra wood, reinforcing the theme of horizontal stripes, which fame a mural by his long-term collaborators the twin Martel brothers Jan and Joël. The commission for the Villa dated back to the Paris Fair of 1925 when the partnership of Robert Mallet-Stevens and the Martel Brothers came forcefully to the attention of the fairgoers when the concrete Cubist trees for the Garden of Modern Housing by Mallet-Stevens became the scandal of the event. The famous Cubist trees, designed by Robert Mallet-Stevens and executed by Jan and Joël Martel, were destroyed after the Fair was closed in October of 1925 and exist today only as maquettes.

Cubist Trees by Robert Mallet-Stevens and the Martel Brothers

Models wearing Sonia Terk-Delaunay Designs

The notorious Cubist trees were executed in concrete and sprouted from a garden was located next to the Pavillon for the twin cities of Roubaix and Tourcoing. Located on the Belgium border, a few miles from Dunkirk, and quite near Arras but dominated by Lille, these towns specialized in the manufacture of textiles. Roubaix was one of the first sites of French industry when in 1469 Charles the Bald gave Peter of Roubaix permission to manufacture cloth. Two centuries later, Charles the Fifth allowed the town to manufacture velvet, fustian, and linen for the common people. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Roubaix called the “Manchester of France” specialized in the spinning and weaving of wool and was the principal supplier of wool yarn for France. Like Roubaix, its twin, Tourcoing was the coveted site for the enemies of France and Belgium, being attacked and conquered by the English, the Austrians, the Dutch and the Saxons. This industrial town also specialized in wool manufacture but there was more of an emphasis on fine cloth and tapestries of mixed silks and mercerized or lustered cottons and “oriental type” carpets. Although today these towns have been deindustrialized, at the of time of the 1925 Fair, they were studded by smoking chimneys of the many factories.

Because both of these towns had been conquered by the Germans in the wake of the fall of Lille in October 1914, the presence of fabric manufacture at the Fair meant more than a mere presentation of the most recent textile manufacture. The area, the battleground of the Western Front would not be liberated until October 1918. Now fully recovered, the towns celebrated the end of a brutal occupation and their subsequent recovery. Designed by the Dutch architect Georges de Feure, the Pavilion for these twin towns was a small brick building, hexagonal in shape. De Feure copied the local architecture by selecting the local brick, which could be red, yellow, brown or cream as his building material. These native brick structures were traditionally capped with white accents blocks, that were used to underscore the shape of the roof or to accent windows and doors and call attention to the angles. The significance of de Feure’s presentation was its unalloyed regionalism. It is often assumed that the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes was strictly modern, but, despite its name, the sub-text of the event was its emphasis on the French provinces, upon the regions with their unique cultures. The building of brick from the Western Front not only echoed the local architecture of the region, decidedly historical and not modern but also emphasized the towns’ long affiliation with industrial arts and crafts. De Feure alluded to the many factories through the stacked entrance terminating in a chimney shape.

Georges de Feure. Pavillon of Roubaix and Tourcoing

Adjacent to this Pavillion was a long garden, complete with a cooling fountain. The fairgoers could rest on small wooden folding chairs under the dubious shade of sculptured trees. These concrete trees were the most prominent manifestation of Cubism at the Fair, where the administration was extremely conservative and tended to exercise censorship. Mallet-Stevens, a good friend of the painter Fernand Léger, installed one of his post-Cubist works in his Tourist Pavillon and was asked to remove the offending object from the wall. The architect refused and the painting stayed in the Pavillon. It is possible the grove of trees was a defiant answer to the would-be censors, but Mallet-Stevens frequently used the shattered forms of Analytical Cubism in his architecture. One need look no further than the protruding blades of the Tourist Pavillon or the layered coat rack at the Villa Noailles or his fractured lighting fixtures to see the prior use of intersecting shards. The height of each Arbre Cubiste in the garden was about twice human size, a scale made clear when Sonia Terk-Delaunay posed her models wearing the Cubist-inspired clothes she designed beneath the Trees around the fountain. As if it were a decade ago, cartoonists once again had their way with Cubism, signifying that the movement was still not understood or accepted. The attribution for the Trees has been muddied over time, sliding in favor or the Martel brothers, but, when one examines Mallet-Stevens, his architecture, his interior design and his product design, it becomes clear that the Trees were his invention. That said, the silly scandal of the Cubist trees led to an important commission in 1929 from Paul Cavrois, an industrialist from Roubaix.

Villa Cavrois showing use of yellow bricks

Cavrois owned an old textile firm, the Cavrois-Mahieu company, located in Roubaix, “the city of a thousand chimneys.” His five factories employed some seven hundred people and created high-end fabrics destined for the Parisian market. Cavrois, who had seven children, needed a large house for his family and decided against an abode in the traditional regional style. Perhaps he met Mallet-Stevens in Paris in 1925 and quite possibly may have watched the construction of six of his houses on a narrow dead end street in the sixteenth arrondissement, now called rue Robert Mallet-Stevens, completed in 1927. For whatever reason, the factory owner selected this well-known and proven architect of wealthy clients for the commission. The architect’s brief from Cavrois was “Abode for a large family. A home for a family living in 1934: air, light, work, sports, hygiene, comfort, economy.” The very large villa was built in the residential suburb of Beaumont and is covered completely in long yellow bricks—an alkaline color, imported from Belgium. These bricks, used without restraint over the entire surface, constituted a decorative motif, an external texture. Mallet-Stevens had a penchant for seizing upon building materials and turning the act of building and construction into décor. This willingness to respond to the environment was his trademark that made each of his architectural works site specific and also separated him Mallet-Stevens from the pure modernists. A comparison of the bricks used in the buildings in Roubaix and Tourcoing and those applied to the Villa Cavrois shows that the yellow bricks of the Villa are so long and narrow that they make a fabric or a facture, a surface rather than a pattern that embraced the entire house. The unrelieved stripes of yellow on the outside are echoed by stripped woods, ranging from light to dark tones inside. Planks of wood were used to border the walls and simple slabs constructed the made-to-order furniture.

Interior Design by Mallet-Stevens and the Martel Brothers

Like his colleagues, Mallet-Stevens refused to use any ornamentation but then he didn’t need to. He allowed the dance of light and shadows and the materials themselves to be the stars in their own right, allowing on art on the walls. The villa was one of the highlights of his career and became a metaphor for the decline of the reputation of the architect. Overshadowed by Le Corbusier, who knew how to publicize himself, Robert Mallet-Stevens died in obscurity and poverty in 1945, ordering his archives to be destroyed. The Villa Cavrois suffered equally. Occupied by the Germans in 1940, the home was purchased by a hostile and unsympathetic developer in the 1980s. The unscrupulous businessman stripped the home of its furniture, its exotic woods and even ripped out the plumbing–all sold–in a craven act of vandalism.

By the mid-1990s, the home was devastated seemingly beyond repair but famous architects intervened in a long campaign to save the home. In 2001, France purchased the home and began a 23 million euro restoration that took years. Much of the house had to be recreated completely from photographs, the only records of the building’s former attributes, and slowly some of the authentic materials have been found and bits and pieces of the unique furniture have been located and put back in place. As with the Bauhaus faculty houses for Klee and Kandinsky, the restorers re-discovered the original deep De Stijl colors used on the walls. The parquet flooring, 90% recovered and restored, was relaid by the very same Belgium firm that installed the floor in 1932. Meanwhile, in 2005, the reputation of Robert Mallet-Stevens was also restored with a long overdue restoration at the Centre Pompidou. The Centre des monuments nationaux reopened the home after fifteen years, its distinctive brickwork carefully reglazed. After a decade of careful building, a forgotten and insulted work of architecture that had become a ruin was transformed into a masterpiece again. Open today for pilgrims who now appreciate this remarkable architect of Art Deco, this home exemplifies what Mallet-Stevens once said, “Genuine luxury is living in a well-heated, well-ventilated, gay, and light-filled setting, requiring the least number of useless gestures and the smallest number of servants.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

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Post-War Art in California


At first glance, California would seem to be an exceedingly unpromising place for major art to emerge in the second half of the Twentieth Century. A new state with a throwaway culture without a history, California had small pockets of local art scenes, more or less picturesque and more or less obscure, with most of the available money going to architectural development and occasional decorative embellishments, with the bulk of the financing going to film. Art was often allied to these enterprises, acting as a pictorial inducement to move to the Golden State or as a partner to movies. Unlike New York City, which had Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 as the gathering place for local and European avant-garde art, California tended to be geographically isolated and culturally limited.

There was a small group of individuals who supported avant-garde in their own diverse ways: Walter and Louise Arensberg and Galka Scheyer. Hollywood attracted artists and the oldest art schools, Otis and Chouinard, had an internationally known faculty: Alexander Archipenko, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and Hans Hofmann. In San Francisco, the California School of Fine Arts dominated the San Francisco scene and was the site of important works by the Mexican Muralist, Diego Rivera. In 1940, Rivera created a mural, Pan American Unity, (today located at the San Francisco City College, for the World’s Fair on Treasure Island in San Francisco. California, like other American states, benefited from the WPA mural program and, even today, murals by Maynard Dixon and Millard Sheets and Helen Lundeberg remain in Los Angeles from those days.

The main avant-garde scene in Los Angeles could be characterized as a Surrealist scene, both European and home grown, supported by collectors from the movie colony, such as Sterling Holloway, Edward G. Robinson and Vincent Price. Man Ray lived in Los Angeles from 1940 and showed in San Francisco at the de Young and at San Francisco Museum of Art. Ray married Juliet Browner in a double wedding with Max Ernst (now divorced from Peggy Guggenheim) and Dorothea Tanning in 1946. The art of Ernst did not necessary please all Angelinos. Indeed, the famous actor, John Barrymore, got drunk and urinated on one of Max Ernst’s works at an art opening.

The remnants of Dada lived on with the Arensberg, in their important Duchamp collection, and from the occasional visits of the famous artist himself. While New York City contemplated Surrealism as painting or as “plastic automatism,” Los Angeles understood Surrealism from the standpoint of the found object and in relation to anti-art subversive forces. While New York City artists extended Modernism along formalist lines and were forced into de-politicizing their art from the late Forties on, artists in California, alone and neglected, were able to be engaged and political, producing content-saturated art.

This local Los Angeles taste for meaning and content in Los Angeles art existed in large part because of the Surrealist sunset in L. A. Max Ernst and Peggy Guggenheim had visited the city in 1941 and their colleague Julian Levy rented space next to the (Frank) Perls Gallery. Other gallery owners included Guggenheim associate Howard Putzel, Stanley Rose, and Earl Stendahl. Of particular importance to the conceptual trend in the art of post-war Los Angeles was the trace of Man Ray who lived in Los Angeles until 1951 and had an important retrospective there in 1966. In contrast to the lingering influence of Surrealism, artists in Los Angeles, now the dead center of a post-war military industrial complex, were impacted by the experience of being at Ground Zero during the Cold War.

The aging Surrealists arrived in a land of continuous boom and mass suburbanization on an unprecedented scale. Between 1940 and 1960 no fewer than 60 new cities were incorporated, many of which served highly specialized constituencies in greater Los Angeles. Despite the apparent clash between the past and the future, the artists of Los Angeles embraced the nostalgia of the found object in a culture that threw everything away. As will be discussed later, the artists of the fifties were witnesses to the possibility of immanent nuclear destruction, because this center of the defense industry would be ground zero for any atomic attack.

Los Angeles had been “made” by the Second World War. An important port city, LA was ideally situated on the Pacific Rim, a jumping off point for the Pacific Theater. People streamed into the city from all over America to work in the war industries and the boomtown bustled with the constant presence of service personnel. The region’s prominence did not end with the fighting. California had recovered quickly from the war, thanks in no small part to the large petroleum production. The vast defense industry that emerged during the Second World War and remained intact for the Cold War continued the prolonged economic prosperity and population growth.

But for artists, the prosperity had a dark side. It seemed probable that at any moment a button could be pushed and everyone and everything would be blown away. The assemblage works of Ed Kienholz and the casual craft of Wallace Berman was a mute testimony to their alienated state of mind—one gathered detritus and made comments upon a society that could not last in the shadow of constant atomic threat. Art, for these artists, could not be permanent or universal or humanistic, as it was in New York. Art could only be fleeting and ephemeral for tomorrow all could vanish in a mushroom cloud.

While artists contemplated an uncertain future in Los Angeles, the movie business or “the industry,” bounced back from wartime restrictions and stringencies and remained the largest filmmaking center in the world. In short, California was developing industries for the late Twentieth Century and becoming a high-tech industrial base while the East Coast was still dependent upon the fruits of the Industrial Revolution and heading towards a post-War future as the Rust Belt. Without much fanfare the United States government shifted federal largesse to the West Coast, the site of the race to the future—outer space.

Art in California was very different from New York in the post-war era, but these distinctions were complex, ranging from the mindset of the artists to the realities of the art scene. While New York was a single focused center, California had two art sites, San Francisco and Los Angeles. In contrast to the relatively homogenous scene in New York, the two cities had entirely disparate traditions. In San Francisco, the heritage European expressionist painting established a firm foothold; while in Los Angeles, the artists were more responsive to the lingering influences of Dada and Surrealism. In New York, the impact of Duchamp could become Neo-Dada, which is rather different from the influences of Surrealism in Los Angeles. These two movements, Dada and Surrealism, could not be comfortably accommodated to the Modernist line of art development and was termed the “Other Tradition” by art historian, Rosalind Krauss.

The father of the Other Tradition, Marcel Duchamp was an active presence in Los Angeles and was well known in San Francisco, long before his work was remembered in New York City. The Dada tradition, an old one, dating back to the First World War, is both preserved and reawakened in the two major sites for art, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Art in California is essentially a post-World War II experience, in the sense that the region emerges as a particular site for art forms that would have international impact.

If one disregards, for the purposes of discussing contemporary art, the California Impressionists and contributions to the Arts and Crafts movement, then serious avant-garde art is a product of the wartime environment. Before the Second World War, California was best known for its thriving scene in photography to the North and for its role as the movie capital of the world to the South. Less well known was the region’s importance for architecture. Some of the most innovative early Modern architects practiced in the Los Angeles area, from Charles and Henry Greene, Frank Lloyd Wright, Irving Gill, Rudolph Schindler, and Richard Neutra.

With ample opportunity for building single-family homes and small housing units, these architects, several of them immigrants, could forge forward into modernism. Modernism in California, especially in Los Angeles is worth discussing in relation to the barriers of politics and war in Europe. In contrast, the West Coast with its polyglot non-tradition of many styles was a fruitful site for experimental architecture. Irving Gill’s now-destroyed Dodge House was built as early as 1916, predating Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, 1929. While Frank Lloyd Wright and the Greene Brothers were descended from the arts and crafts tradition, but Neutra and Schindler produced very important examples of what would be called The International Style. Both Neutra (Lovell Health House, 1929) and Schindler (Lovell House, Newport Beach, 1926) built houses for Philip Lovell, which were two of the best examples of modernist white walled architecture outside the Bauhaus.

As this international group of architects suggests, California was a land of migrants and immigrants of many cultures and ethnicities: an uneasy mixing bowl where Anglos insisted on maintaining a cultural, political, and economic domination. The history of Los Angeles, for example, can be written in terms of the movement of ethnic groups around the city, shifted at the will of the Anglos. Their voices will not be heard until the Sixties, making the Watts Towers constructed by Simon Rodia one of the rare public monuments asserting diversity and ethnicity and personal commitment to a sense of place. But the Watts Towers were more than a statement of one person’s determination, they became, over time, a symbol of art in Los Angeles and the peculiar direction art in Los Angeles has taken. Rodia worked as a bricoleur, a hunter and a gatherer, who worked with the objects found in his environment. Like the artists of Los Angeles who would begin their mature careers shortly after Rodia mysteriously left in the early fifties to return to his native Italy, he worked in isolation, without support or audience or appreciation, except by the few who were open-minded. Under such circumstances, without major museums, without patrons, with few galleries, the artists were in a curiously “pure” situation, making art for art’s sake alone, showing art for a truly elite audience–themselves.

In summation, both Los Angeles and San Francisco and their two very different art scenes have traditionally been ignored in favor of art in New York. Broadly speaking, regardless of brief deviations, New York has always been a painting town, as was San Francisco, until the sixties. Although people have always painted in the City of Angles, Los Angeles has always been an object making town. To repeat, a very important factor the artists in Los Angeles was the shadow of the Cold War. Acutely aware of the militarization of the nation, the artists of Los Angeles expected the world to end at any time. There seemed no purpose to make art that was lasting, much less archival. The LA artist has always worked with stuff, junk, detritus, and objects without history, without recognition, only to find out—over time—that something important had been wrought and their art was validated after the fact.

In contrast to this homegrown culture of the found object in Los Angeles, the artist in San Francisco was in a considerably more traditional milieu that of European painting and modern art, imported by artists from New York City, Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko. The impact of their influence as teachers and as artists was the famous Bay Area Figurative School, which evolved out of abstraction on the East Coast. The New York aura was a short lived phenomenon, however, and the San Francisco period of Figurative painting soon gave way to something more home grown: object-based “funk art” created in a Dada frame of mind. Indeed, Dada and Surrealism have an extended, albeit it American, life in California, north and south.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Abstract Expressionism: The Field of Cultural Production

The Historical Context of Abstract Expressionism

The historical context of Abstract Expressionism can perhaps best be mapped out according to the theories of Pierre Bourdieu who coined the phrase “the field of cultural production.” What was the “field” which “produced” the culture of Abstract Expressionism? One should also add the thinking of Giesele Freund who wrote of the “preparedness” or the “readiness” of society for photography. Abstract Expressionism marks the shift of Modern Art away from Paris and towards New York, the movement of the avant-garde from Europe to America. New York, as Serge Guilbault remarked, “stole the idea of modern art.” The theft of modern art was the result of the preparedness of the artists in New York City in the 1940s to take advantage of the shift of the field of cultural production from the Old World to the New.

First, European politics stymied and stifled the free circulation of avant-garde art around the continent. Fascism in Italy in the 1920s, Nazism in Germany in the 1930s and their totalitarian control of art was prefaced by the crushing of the vanguard Russian artists in the Soviet Union. Totalitarian regimes cannot tolerate freedom in the arts and a political party that seeks absolute power will always move against the artists first. Major sources of art making and art thinking were shut down and many of the artists impacted simply packed up and left. Many artists came to America, bringing with them ideas of art theory and concepts of art practice to provincial shores.

Second, even in Paris, where there was open acceptance of avant-garde art, the art market had a dampening effect upon the development of new and innovative ideas. The time between the wars in Paris was a conservative one, an era of consolidation of the pre-War avant-garde movements. Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, et al. were now “historical” movements and their leaders were now Old Masters. A tendency towards a conservative approach to art evidenced itself very early on, during the Great War, in the work of Picasso. After the war the mood was one of “Return to Order” and restoring all that was classical in French art in The School of Paris. Nostalgic conservatism after a devastating war is a common reaction and would be exemplified by the Ingres-esque classicism of Amedeo Modigliani. After post-War economic recovery, French collectors were eagerly flocking to the revived and expanded art market. The dealers sold their clients “a Picasso,” or “a Matisse,” art done in the characteristic styles of the masters, but tamed down. A case in point is Picasso’s 1921 Three Musicians, which is a painted collage, in other words, not innovative mixed media, but a conservative and salable painting.

Surrealism emerged in 1924 out of the ashes of the last provocative avant-garde movement, Dada. Conservative Surrealism was an inward looking movement that possessed no particular stylistic “look,” but was a placeholder for the avant-garde. In contrast to the pre-war avant-garde movements which were stylistic change, Surrealism produced not so much new styles as new approaches to the process of making art, such as automatic writing. Another historical footnote worth noting was the fact that the history of pre-War avant-garde movements was largely written by the art dealers, such as Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and Léonce Rosenberg, thus legitimating their art and elevating the price. During the Nazi occupation of Paris, avant-garde artists either sought safety in America—-Chagall, who was Jewish, moved to New York—-or were forced to keep a low and safe profile in France to survive the Nazi occupation.

Third, European artists immigrated to America over the course of ten years. Some of these artists, such as the Bauhaus architects, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and Mies van der Rohe, simply moved their practices to the American cities of New York and Chicago. The coming of the Bauhaus architects to the United States paved the way for the International Style that would characterize architecture after the Second World War. Indeed, Modernist architecture was a case in point of how inhospitable Europe had become to avant-garde architects. While those in Russia were doomed to produce mostly “paper architecture” or models, other architects concentrated on domestic architecture, such as Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye and the De Stijl architect Gerrit Reitveld’s Schröder House in the 1920s. Thwarted by wars and oppression, Modernist architecture finally found itself in great works of public and corporate works only after the Second World War. The Seagram Building by Mies van der Rohe in New York was the achievement of the prosperous Fifties in America.

But architects weren’t the only Europeans to seek safe haven. Even as Hitler was moving into power in Germany, Hans Hofmann was moving out to become an art teacher in New York in the winter and Providencetown in the summer. Bauhaus faculty members, Josef and Anni Albers, found themselves at the famous Black Mountain College where they taught the next generation who would overtake the Abstract Expressionist artists. Piet Mondrian, who had fled Holland for London, had to leave London for New York, where he died in 1945. The American Dada photographer, Man Ray, came home and spent the next eleven years in Los Angeles. These artists were joined by intellectuals, such as Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno, who changed the climate and the quality of American thinking during the Second World War.

Fourth, the presence of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City was of great significance in educating American artists on European avant-garde art. Since Alfred Stieglitz had closed down his gallery, 291, in 1916, there had been no reliable gathering point were artists could see the cutting edge art of Europe. And then MoMA opened in 1929, headed by Alfred Barr. Barr ended the somewhat specious relationship between the dealers and the museums: dealers would organize and mount shows in museums, giving their art greater legitimacy, and subsequently raising the prices. Like Christ in the Temple with the Moneychangers, Barr barred such practices and art was set apart from commerce. The look of MoMA, the “pure” White Cube, gave the museum of modern art a sanctified air, where art and commercialism did not consort. Most importantly, Barr was able to bring in avant-garde European art in a series of shows that would be hard to mount in many European countries. It could be argued that, thought these important exhibitions, American artists had better access to this new art than did European artists, particularly those who were stranded in totalitarian countries.

Fifth, American artists were being brought together as never before during the Thirties. Government programs employed artists as either easel artists or as mural artists for public buildings, granting them the status of professionals. Many artists were able to take advantage of these employment programs, others, such as Willem de Kooning, who was not in American legally, or Newman, who had political qualms, did not take part. Whether or not one participated or not, the result of the government programs was to bring artists together, to create an artist community that included art critics, such as Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. This community was ready to hear the new ideas of the European émigré artists and intellectuals. Greenberg learned studio talk at the feet of Hofmann who gave his American audiences a synthesis of Cubist and Expressionist art theories.

Although in the post-war, art history glossed over the art commissioned by the New Deal, the murals and photographs and easel painting stirred up creativity and provided challenges to American artists. In contrast the European artists who were essentially running in place, American artists were keeping active, forced into the innovation demanded by new conditions. Sensing an opportunity, Americans watched closely as nation by nation, territory by territory, Europe shut art down. American artists respected European art, but many felt that the avant-garde movements were played out. The best artists were old and long past their prime. Surrealism was already twenty years old, for instance. No new generation had emerged in Europe.

Sixth, Americans wanted to go beyond European art, but the question was how? Painters in New York wanted to create a new avant-garde art that was uniquely “American,” being robust, reflective of the greatness of the nation. The local artists liked the all-over effects of Cézanne and Mondrian, but found the easel art small and confining. Mondrian, especially, seemed “effeminate” in the precise preciousness of his meditative approach to painting. The New Yorkers were interested in the concept of the powers of the unconscious mind, suggested by Surrealism, but did not like the realistic dream paintings or Freudian theory. They did, however, appreciate the freedom from convention that the practice of écriture automatique or automatic writing could give to artists.

The promise of the all-over effect expanded beyond the portable easel painting could be fulfilled by mural painting, as practiced and taught by the Mexican muralists. The Mexican muralists were highly political and highly specific and many of them had an unfortunate track record of having their murals defaced: Rivera by the Rockefellers in New York and Siqueros by Christine Sterling in Los Angeles. Wary of political content, the American artists preferred the universality of message combined with an impressive scale found in Picasso’s Guernica, temporarily housed at MoMA.

Seventh, as can be seen, it is as important to take note of what the younger generation of American artists rejected. In addition to the Communist statements of the Mexican painters and the dream content of the Surrealists, American artists did not want to continue the nationalistic art of the Regionalist artists, such as Benton and Wood, nor did they want to continue the political art of the Social Realists, such as Ben Shahn and the other Depression artists. During the Depression and the Second World War, much art was dedicated to propaganda which promoted the benefits of the New Deal and then the need to support the War. The new artists appreciated abstract art, and, indeed there was an active group of abstract artists, the American Abstract Artists, but theirs was an old-fashioned abstraction of European formalism. The American artists coming into maturity in New York wanted a new kind of abstraction.

And, last, there was one factor, seldom emphasized but often mentioned in passing—the age of the Abstract Expressionist artists. They were all middle-aged men who had been developing their painting techniques and styles for years, working in obscurity. Unlike their European counterparts, the painters of the New York School had uninterrupted careers, untouched by political oppression or war. When America was drawn into World War II in 1941, these men were too old or too unfit or too ineligible to serve in the Armed Forces. While younger men went to war, sacrificing their careers and sometimes their lives for their county, the Abstract Expressionists were able to remain in the safety of New York City.

These crucial war years were the very years that preceded their individual styles, which would emerge in the fifties. When peace returned, the New York artists had benefited from a period of maturation that placed them at the forefront of the art world. Much of Europe was in ruins, and the European artists had to endure a period of rebuilding and restoration. In contrast, the American artists had to wait only for the emergence of a professional gallery scene that could support their ambitions. In ten years, it had become apparent that New York had inherited the idea of Modern Art.

What did the American artists in New York City want? They wanted to take over the reins of avant-garde Modernist art. They wanted to make modernist art American. The artists, who would form (loosely) the New York School in the Fifties, were ready, they were prepared. The field of cultural production had shifted to the East Coast of America. The result would be Abstract Expressionism.

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The Making of the New York School


In 1983, art historian, Serge Guilbaut, wrote a provocatively titled book, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art. How, indeed? While the first chapter of this book discusses the politics of the New York intelligentsia and the various stances and shades of Marxism, I wish to look to the cultural matrix between the wars that drove avant-garde innovation to the shores of America. Socially and politically, this was a period of isolation and appeasement in Europe. Artistically, the period between the wars was a Return to Order. The result was a marketable and conservative version of avant-garde in Paris and a radical return to an unflinching realism in Germany.

After the Great War, European powers would have given away anything and anyone to avoid losing another generation of young men. The result of the very natural desire to save lives was to allow a rising tide of Communism in Russia and Fascism in Italy and Germany and a continental drift towards totalitarianism. The Great Depression of the 1930s made desperate people susceptible to the lure of a leader. Whether Communist or Fascist, both types of regimes were repressive to avant-garde art, which was banned by Hitler (collected by his henchmen) as “degenerate” and replaced by socialist realist art in Russia. As Clement Greenberg pointed out art in the Soviet Union devolved into kitsch of which Nazi art, based upon debased classicism, was a perfect example. Less well known is the position of Fascist art in Italy, which was based upon debased Modernism, appropriated by Mussolini in order to ally the new Roman Empire with modernity.

Artistically, the state of avant-garde art after the Great War was conservative. In France this return to traditionalism was termed rétour à l’ordre and this New Classicism was the foundation of the School of Paris. Although Paris as center of international art scene, it was not as dynamic as it had been before the War. The young artists were decidedly minor, compared to the maturing leaders, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. The only overtly avant-garde movement was Surrealism. Surrealism did not originate in the visual arts but in the psychology of Sigmund Freud, used by the poets of the movement to search for different sources for inspiration beyond or “sur” reality. The visual artists, who came to the movement later, adapted and played with Surrealist ideas and techniques, some of which, such as écriture automatique, would have a life beyond the movement.

In Germany, the subject matter of New Objectivity was highly active and provocative and confrontational but the styles employed by the artists were deliberately old world. The famous art school, the Bauhaus, was not innovative in the fine arts but was very avant-garde in the world of design and architecture. In comparison to the acceptance of the French version of the avant-garde and its highly lucrative art market, the artists in German who were trying to challenge the establishment met with hostile reactions from the Weimar government. The Bauhaus designers had ideas that were ahead of the technological and industrial capabilities, which would be achieved only after the Second World War. At any rate this flowering of the avant-garde art scene in Berlin was brief, not well received in its own time and ended abruptly under Hitler in 1933.

Meanwhile, the situation in America was not one of a need for order no matter what the costs. America was not faced with a Hobson’s choice between totalitarianism versus the need for peace no matter what the costs or accommodation to the forces of “order.” Although the nation participated reluctantly in the Great War, America had traditionally been isolationist in its mindset towards European art, preferring its own utilitarian culture of necessity. The idea of art-for-art’s-sake, so dear to Europeans, was alien to Americans. Art was a useless luxury. What art there was existed in New York. Despite the brush with the avant-garde of Europe at the 1913 Armory Show, conservative and backward versions of outdated art styles from the Old Country, such as the regressive realism of the Ashcan School.

But the early twentieth-century artists of the Ashcan School suited American audiences who had always preferred realism and art about themselves. Nevertheless, there were two small groups of avant-garde artists in New York, the group of artists around Alfred Stieglitz, the American Modernists: Paul Strand, Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, John Marin, Charles Sheeler, and Charles Demuth. Coexisting and crossing paths with the Stieglitz group were a more radical set circulating around the collectors, Walter and Louise Arensberg. The New York Dada, consisting largely of Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, was only tangentially related to the Dada groups in Europe and was arguably more significant for artists in the fifties than the artists of the forties.

At any rate, these early twentieth century movements were no longer coherent groups by the thirties and the members were scattered and had gone on to follow their personal interests. The exhaustion of American Modernism and Dada left a space that was filled by nationalist art movements, the regionalism of Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood and the political activism of Social Realists, such as Ben Shahn. The decade of the thirties was a decade of “American” art, not the “American” art of Sheeler and Demuth and Stuart Davis and Ralston Crawford, all of which celebrated the industry of the nation, but the folksy, rural agrarian tradition of “Americana.” In contrast, Social Realism and versions of politically active art practiced by the Mexican muralists introduced content that attempted to reveal the grim truth of the Depression.

The Depression, however, was good to artists. The United States government attempted to find work for all Americans who needed work and provided specialized jobs for specialized communities. Artists and writers were allowed to remain artists and writers in an economic climate that would have ordinarily wiped out the careers of most of them. For the first time, artists were recognized as “artists” and were mobilized by the government as professionals and given honest work. Art history has tended to ignore the work done by artists under the New Deal on the basis of aesthetic judgment and because the artists were hired hands with little freedom to invent. However, the New Deal projects were important to the future because New Deal spread art throughout a nation where art had never existed, where artists were unknown. The New Deal kept artists actively making art, whether mural art or easel art and paid them a living wage. Perhaps the Depression artists were given commissions and parameters to follow but their situation was far superior to that of artists under Hitler or Stalin.

Although not articulated at the time, it was clear to the avant-garde American artists involved with the tradition of European modernism, that the avant-garde overseas was exhausted. The previous leaders, from Picasso to Breton, were aging and were intent upon consolidating their careers and reputations. The steam had gone out of the European avant-garde and nothing had happened to take the place of Surrealism as the leader in innovation. Because of the many interdictions on avant-garde art in nations under totalitarian rule, much of the work being done by European artists who could still make art was not widely circulated. The international art scene that had existed up to the thirties no longer existed and the free flow of artistic ideas was dammed up.

But there was an island, and an unlikely island at that, where avant-garde art could be seen in its variety and entirety—New York City. As early as 1921, there was an exhibition at Brooklyn Museum of Cézanne and Matisse and in 1926 very new and cutting edge artists, Joan Miró, Piet Mondrian, and El Lissitzky. And then in 1929 the Museum of Modern Art opened under Alfred Barr. The Museum of Modern Art became a major site for introducing Modernist ideas and modern art to the American public. A number of exhibitions at the museum set up the history of Modernism with shows of the work of Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, and Vincent van Gogh in 1929, Toulouse-Lautrec and Redon in 1931. And to get the New York art audiences up to date Barr mounted a Survey of the School of Paris, Painting in Paris, a show featuring Léger in 1935, and the iconic exhibition, Cubism and Abstract Art in 1936. Recent movements were also made available with the 1936 – 37 exhibition, Fantastic Art, Dada & Surrealism and the show of the Bauhaus 1919 – 1928 in 1930 to 1939.

Ironically when Barr mounted exhibitions of the art of Vasily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian, American artists became better educated in modernist art than their European counterparts. The Museum of Modern Art used the decade of the thirties to give Americans a crash course and a history lesson (exemplified by his famous chart in the beginning of his catalogue Cubism and Abstract Art) on Modernism. However, these exhibitions also served to convince the local artists that they had to break out of what was clearly an avant-garde that was now part of history. American artists began seeing other sources for inspiration and other approaches to art, from the exhibition, African Negro Art in 1935, the exhibition Prehistoric Rock Pictures in Europe and America of 1937, and a very influential exhibition of Native American art, Indian Art of the United States in 1941.

While of great importance, the Museum of Modern Art was symptomatic of the early evidence of the establishment of a genuine art world in New York. Albert Gallatin’s Museum of Living Art in the library of New York University showed Neo-Plasticism and Constructivist art. The Museum of Non-Objective Painting (later renamed the Solomon R. Guggenheim) opened in 1939. Under the leadership of Hilla Rebay, the museum began to collect the best examples of European modernist art, such as Kandinsky, Arp, Malevich, Léger, Delaunay, Giacometti. A few American artists were included, such as David Smith but for the most part the Museum looked mainly to Europe. Local artists were certainly receptive to modernist art. Art collector, Katherine Dreier and Dada artist, Marcel Duchamp, founded the Société Anonyme in 1920 for avant-garde thinkers, and abstract painters came together when the American Abstract Artists was established in 1936.

Although artists in New York often complained that MoMA was biased towards European artists, half the museum’s exhibitions were of American artists and the range of art shown was astonishing, from photography to design to architecture. As further evidence of the growing importance of New York as a cultural center was the large numbers of political refugees that arrived during the 1930s. German artist, Hans Hoffmann, had a school of fine arts in Munich but he was among the many perceptive artists who saw the handwriting on the wall and closed the school in 1932 and came to America. Hofmann opened his own school in New York City in 1934 and a summer school in Provincetown, Massachusetts in 1935. The Bauhaus artists and architects, fleeing Hitler after the closure of the school in 1933, would join him in exile. Josef and Annie Albers became teachers at the famous Black Mountain College and while their impact upon the New York artists of the forties was certainly less than that of Hofmann, the presence of experienced teachers of modernist art would shape a generation of artists.

For the first time, American artists could hear European art theories, taught by an artist who combined German Expressionism with French Cubism. Clement Greenberg, largely a literary critic, began attending Hofmann’s lectures, learning studio talk and crafting himself as an art critic. Hofmann joined other émigré artists already in place. Arshile Gorky (Vosdanig Adoian) had arrived in New York ten years earlier and had assimilated the same traditions as Hofmann, but from visits to museums. In what would be a typically American strategy of synthesizing European movements, Gorky added Surrealism to the mix. John Graham (Ivan Gratianovitch Dombrowsky) came to the United States from Russian and never looked back, becoming an America citizen in 1927. A decade later he wrote “Picasso and Primitive Art” and Systems and Dialectics in Art. Writing in 1937, Graham, who was in touch with European art, suggested that American artists look to the “primitive” art forms and championed abstract art. Graham was concerned with the development of an art that could be expressive

Graham was one of several figures that mentored the new generation of artists in New York, including the Mexican mural artist, David Siqueiros who experimented with airbrush and spray techniques in his painting. Jackson Pollock, whom Graham knew well, visited this workshop twice, intrigued with the large scale of the murals and with the non-fine art tools. The first mural done by a Mexican artist was produced in 1930 by José Clemente Orozco at Pomona College in the small town of Claremont, California, east of Los Angeles. Jackson Pollock, who had grown up in Los Angeles, went out of his way to see the Prometheus mural on his way to New York. Diego Rivera was also in New York but sadly his mural for the Rockefeller Center was destroyed in 1934 but the concept of a wall scaled work of art would have a lasting impact on the New York School.

The last group of artists to arrive in America was the Surrealists from France. Like Piet Mondrian and Marc Chagall, they came to America in 1940 as a last resort. As the irresistible wave of Hitler’s Wehrmacht rolled over Europe and as London huddled under a rain of bombs, New York was the only safe place for an artist who was avant-garde or Jewish or both. By the time the Surrealists arrived, the New York artistic scene was ready for the last dose of heady European art theory. Although the Surrealists, led by André Breton, were not interested in communicating with the locals, Roberto Matta, a Chilean artist, acted as go-between and the ideas and techniques of the French artists were transmitted to the New York artists. Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, André Masson, and Yves Tanguy circulated more than Breton and Tanguy and Ernst married American artists, Kay Sage and Dorothea Tanning, respectively.

The famous Peggy Guggenheim returned home, but with European booty, a treasure trove of avant-garde European from artists who were desperate to sell their works. She tried to purchase “a work a day,” her motto. This large and significant collection became the foundation of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, established when she returned to Venice in 1946. In addition to collecting art, Guggenheim also collected the German artist, Max Ernst who had been interned as an enemy alien in Aix-en-Provence in 1940. But when the Germans conquered France, Ernst, as a “degenerate artists” was still in danger and was arrested by the Nazis. He escaped from the Gestapo and, with the help of Peggy Guggenhiem, was able to get to America through Portugal. Ernst and the art collector married in 1941 and in 1942 she opened her gallery, Art of This Century.

Always competitive with her uncle, Guggenheim was now a full-fledged rival and became a major player on the New York art scene, presiding over her gallery, designed by Frederick Keisler. At the urging of Lee Krasner, Peggy Guggenheim began to sponsor Krasner’s boyfriend, Jackson Pollock. Major questions faced the artists of the New York School to extend the European tradition of Modernism, now ossified, or stake out new territory and create their own art, a new American tradition. Also up for discussion, what of this European tradition to retain and what to discard, what to take from the “American” scene and what to learn from the Mexican artists. Now, with the arrival of so many European artists, the Americans were able to acquire not just new tools for painting but also the words, the language, which allowed them to talks about art. The stage was now ready and the scene was set. All the players were in motion and the art world had shifted the New York, which had “stolen” the idea of Modern Art.

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Podcast 48: Marcel Duchamp—The Readymades

Marcel Duchamp, Part One

Marcel Duchamp began his career as a painter and ended it as a maker of carefully crafted objects. Using a combination of intellectual, aesthetic, and psychological viewpoints, this podcast discusses Duchamp’s decision to “secede” from the Parisian art world as a counter rejection. In attempting to shield himself from art world politics, Duchamp created a new way to re-make “art” as a Readymade—a defiant gesture of indeterminacy.


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This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

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School of Paris: The Historical Context

The School of Paris

Recall to Order

After the Great War, the fabric of European society was in tatters. An entire generation of young men had been killed in a senseless slaughter on the Western Front. A generation of young women would never find mates and a generation of children would grow up without a father. The men who survived were often physically and mentally wounded, and, in those days, had no support from the very nations that had sent them off to war. Although there could be no return to the way things were, the cultural impulse in France was a desire to Return to Order—“retour à l’ordre,” to resume life in a sane and safe fashion.

The term itself supposedly originated with Jean Cocteau, who in 1926, wrote Le rappel à l’ordre,” but the unruly French poet was an unlikely source for such a phrase. Although he was elegantly attired in a uniform custom made by Paul Poiret, Cocteau’s wartime experience was a checkered one, veering wildly from offering to “assist” his fellow soldiers in the shower to being an ambulance driver who walked away from the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Cocteau returned to Paris in time to produce one of the most significant ballets of the century, Parade. The list of the artists who participated on this ballet, Erick Satie, Sergei Diaghilev, Pablo Picasso, et. al, reads like a who’s who of the avant-garde. It was after attending the May 1917 premiere of Parade that Guillaume Apollinaire was inspired to use a new term he had recently coined, “Surreality.” But the innovation and experimentation of Parade was perhaps the last gasp of the golden age of pioneering modern forms of art.

Once the war was over and the troops came home, it was clear that the art world could not resume its previous course. One of the reasons why Parade was received with such a combination of bewilderment and hostility is that the ballet was modern and, strangely enough, in Paris all things “modern” were “German.” This small insight gleaned from the reception of Parade clarifies why part of the “Call to Order” campaign was about purification. But before discussing the emergence of a newly conservative set of styles in Paris, it is important to examine the cultural context of the City of Light between the wars.

The move of the avant-garde artists from Montmartre to Montparnasse is indicative of an emerging art market that would allow artists to make decent incomes and be able to live less-impoverished but still colorful lives. Instead of hanging out at the Lapin agile, the intelligentsia took over more elegant cafés and bistros in the territory below the steep hills of the maquis. Montparnasse was where Gertrude Stein invited the artists and writers to her home on rue de Fleurus. Famously, the American writer, Ernest Hemingway made his way to her home to hear her advice to write in a crisp and clean fashion. Fashion photographer, May Ray, returned from New York and began his love affair with his muse, Kiki of Montparnasse. African-American servicemen who found that they could actually get served in Le Dôme began to put together one of the best jazz scenes in the world in Paris.

The move towards respectability was already underway during the Great War, when Picasso began living in Montparnasse with his new wife Olga and a staff of servants. The artists who had gone to war or who had sought refuge in other nations returned to find the pre-war art world turned upside down. The Cubist “heroes,” Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger returned to find Picasso, a reclusive artist in the Salon years, now holding court and riding high. Georges Barque, Picasso’s erstwhile partner in art, was suddenly relegated to a secondary position. It seems clear that the artists who stayed in Paris, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, and guarded their position and further developed their art benefited after the war. The Cubist “heroes” found themselves consigned to a “minor” status and most slipped into historical oblivion. The Fauves faded even further and the post-war art of André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck became retrograde, glum, and entirely forgettable.

The pre-war avant-garde witnessed their movements being re-written into history, not according to actual lived history but according to the marketing strategies of art dealers. On the eve of the war the famous Le peau de l’ours sale of cutting edge work by young artists made vanguard art financially profitable. The investors quadrupled their money in ten years. Art dealers certainly took note, as did the collectors. Avant-garde artists had long reached out to specialized and adventurous collectors, such as the Stein family, and now that pool of buyers was expanding. In order to make “their artists” more commercially viable, dealers wrote books, like Daniel-Henry Khanweiler, or art exhibition catalogues, like Léonce Rosenberg. These books and catalogues, combined with the post-war books on Cubism by critics, such as Maurice Raynal, and artists, such as Juan Gris, formed the bedrock of the history of the pre-war art movements. From the perspective of valuing art, those publications certainly transformed certain avant-garde artists into historically significant figures whose art was of “blue chip” quality.

The presence of an art market with a taste for advance art was a major factor in the tamping down of avant-garde “excesses.” Collectors wanted to buy advanced art, but not too advanced. Keep in mind that our understanding of art history is anachronistic and that the late phase of synthetic Cubism was radical decades after it debuted. As late as the 1920s, there was little public knowledge of mixed media art and even less understanding of collage and assemblage. What the buyers wanted was paintings, not pieces of paper stuck onto another piece of paper. Picasso and Barque translated the lessons of collage into paintings by incorporating the large blocks of color and the juxtaposition of abstract forms into attractive paintings with readable images.

The notion that Cubism could function like a semiotic system was abandoned in favor of a post-war post-Cubist style that “looked like” a form of acceptable watered down “Cubism.” Barque retained this conservative approach for the rest of his career, painting numerous still lives, many positioned on pedestal tables. Picasso produced his own version of a tamed and humbled Cubism with Three Musicians in 1921, but he also developed a parallel style, a form of “classicism” so favored by those who wanted to “return to order.” Picasso proved himself to be an artist of great alacrity and was able to shift with the trends: he moved from his war-time version of Cubism, “Rococo Cubism,” to classicism to his watered down Cubism. Having established himself as a versatile artist who could move among styles, Picasso was free to join the latest style, Surrealist biomorphism, and combine it with Cubism into a colorful curvilinear suite of paintings dedicated to his new lover, Marie Thérèse. The transformation of Cubism into a saleable commodity enabled the Cubist pioneers to live in comfort for the rest of their lives, presiding over the School of Paris.

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The Surrealist Object



Surrealism was initially practiced in written form as textual production, as a means of freeing the literary mind from “writerly” conventions. Just as Sigmund Freud took dictation, so to speak, writing down what his patients told him, the Surrealists would write down the contents of their minds. If only they could awaken that deep level where the subconscious thoughts dwelled. At first, Surrealists resisted the visual in favor of language. Pierre Naville, who aspired to leadership with André Breton, said bluntly,

“Masters, master-crooks, smear your canvases. Everyone knows there is no surrealist painting. Neither the mark of a pencil abandoned to the accident of gesture, nor the image retracing the form of the dream…”

Naville, who edited the first three issues of La Revolution Surrealiste with Benjamin Peret, was eventually purged from the Surrealist group in 1933. With Breton firmly in charge of the journal and of the membership, Surrealism welcomed the visual artists to the ranks, usually by a kind of verbal anointing by the Pope. He gave the nod to such retrospective “Surrealists,” like de Chirico or selected the reluctant Magritte and included the surprised Kahlo. After Breton issued what turned out to be the first Surrealist Manifesto in 1924 he added his essay, Le Surrealism et la peinture in 1926, to his growing collection of writings on this new art movement. In the Surrealist Manifesto, Breton wrote of the importance of the dream,

“I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak.” He continued, “It is in quest of this surreality that I am going, certain not to find it but too unmindful of my death not to calculate to some slight degree the joys of its possession.”

It is here within the surreal fusion between dream and reality that the Surrealist object evolved. Certainly there is a connection between the Readymades of Marcel Duchamp and the Surrealist object, but Duchamp was always concerned with the discourse on the nature of art. Surrealism had other ideas about the object. On the occasion of the Exhibition of Surrealist Objects at the Galerie Charles Ratton in Paris in 1937, Breton wrote an essay on “The Crisis of the Object.” The installation provocatively showed Surrealist objects and so-called mathematical objects from the Institut Poincaré in glass cabinets, like ethnographic or more precisely, scientific specimens. Photographs of the exhitit show that “primitive” masks, Duchamp’s Bottle Rack and Why not Sneeze Rrose Sélavy were encased along with Alberto Giacometti’s Suspended Object and Oppenheim’s Luncheon in Fur.

Breton understood that the object had been in a state of “crisis” from, as he stated, about 1830 when scientific studies and poetic and artistic experimentations began to develop along parallel courses. On one hand, science studies objects as material things, and on the other hand, the arts manipulated objects for aesthetic purposes. Braque and Picasso actually dissolved the object into its own logical infinitude, thus making clear how acute the crisis had become. Surrealism, in contrast to many of the other avant-garde art movements, was not abstract; instead, Surrealism was a return to the concrete. Breton, a keen student of the French poetic tradition, was aware of the dream of Rimbaud to return to a kind of primitivistic or primal vision that would be free of conventions and the challenge was to link the untutored vision with the imagination.

Surrealist theory sought to re-enchant the universe and thought that the crisis of the object could be overcome if the thing in all its strangeness could be seen as if anew. The strategy was not to make Surreal objects for the sake of shocking the middle class public but to make objects “surreal” by dépayesment or estrangement. The goal was not so much the choice but the hunt and the displacement of the object, removing it from its expected context, which would defamilarize it. Once the object was stranded outside of its normal place, it could be seen without the veil of cultural conventions. L’Objet Insolite’is different from Breton’s dream object, which emerged out of the subconscious and must be created. In his book, Nadja, Breton wandered the side streets of Paris, a city, which, to him was a city haunted with strange never-before seen objects. Wandering with Giacometti, he would haunt the marché aux puces or flea markets, hoping for an encounter with the “Marvelous” which would assuage Breton’s taste for the bizarre.

The Surrealist object was closely related to Freud’s concept of the “fetish.” The ordinary object becomes a fetish because we project our desire upon it, because we look at it and look again until we cannot stop looking. The selection of this object, like any Dada object, is random. And like the Surrealist object, the choice is not as significant as the meaning the human psychology gives to it. The fetish is always a substitute for something else and always has a sexual content, is always a substation for sexual satisfaction. Although not explicitly mentioned, Marx’s commodity fetish not only predates Freud’s sexual fetish but also shares the same cognitive mechanism.

For Marx, the commodity becomes a fetish when it can be exchanged for something else, or acquires a monetary value through its symbolic meaning, which is the “something else” outside and beyond the object itself. In other words, certain objects become commodities because we, the consumer, are willing and able to invest something of emotional selves into the object. Marx was intrigued at how such fetishized objects are exchanged when a concept we translate as “value” becomes monetized. Marx and Freud agreed that whether symbolic commodity or sexual substitution, the fetishized object is never itself and is always the “symptom” for something else. That projection of subconscious desire for an absent entity is what characterizes the Surrealist object. The definition of the object is never a scientific or an objective or a conventional meaning. The symbolic value (meaning) is always personal and subjective to the possessor.

While Breton, the writer and poet, may have played the role of the flâneur searching for the unexpected, visual artists created their own poetic objects and imposed them upon modern art, in competition with traditional sculpture—the Readymade, and with Picasso’s logical assemblages were new conceptual constructions. The Readymades were about language and were frequently visual-verbal puns, such as Duchamp’s Fresh Widow (play on French Window). Picasso’s constructions were physical manifestations of intellectual concepts, such as The Guitar. Surrealism approaches objects in an entirely different manner, irrational rather than rational, poetic rather than intellectual. Duchamp and Picasso play with what is, but the Surrealists evoke the unnamable unspoken.

The fetishization of an otherwise ordinary thing led to a cult of objects without aesthetic or artistic intentions. These Surrealist objects fell into many categories. The Surrealist found object could be a flea market find, an object that had survived long after the knowledge of its use was lost and it had become strange to itself and others. In contrast, the natural object was just that—natural, such as a stone, while the “interpreted” found object was useful utensil converted into bizarre object, such as Man Ray’s Cadeau. Ray’s simple iron was studded with tacks, points out, giving the triangular flat bottom the menacing look of the dreaded “vagina dentate.” And the useful iron becomes useless and strange.

The readymade or the modern mass produced object dragged from contextand becomes thing of the mind. The Surrealist assemblage, such as those created by Joan Miró, who stacked up disparate objects, from a fish to a bowler hat, functioned like a cadaver exquise, forcing the viewer to re-imagine the possible meanings. The incorporated object can be in Max Ernst’s Two Children Frightened by a Nightengale where a hyperreal painting sprouts wooden parts, a miniature gate and a painted knob. The phantom object is merely suggested by a gesture of the hands—a feint seen in Giacometti’s Hands Holding the Void (1934).

Perhaps the most familiar Surrealist object and the most famous object of desire is the Dream object invented by Meret Oppenheim, Luncheon in Fur (1934). Humble and familiar, the dream object is given sumptuous appearance by caprice or desire. Oppenheim appropriated a simple set of crockery made for café au lait, meaning that the object is not fine china or dainty high-class specimens of fine porcelain. Large in scale, as is necessary for café au lait, the cup, saucer and spoon sprout the fur of the rabbit, an equally humble animal. Not only have the crockery set become useless, it has become sexually suggestive. Oppenheim created a disjuncture between tea and fur and the hairy object metamorphosized into a metaphor, “fur for lunch.” For Freud, fur and velvet had sexual connotations, claiming that “the sight of pubic hair” triggered desire, based on the longing to see “the female member.” This male fixation is based on the visual, which is given a position or primacy and this fixation becomes a fetish.

There are many other categories for the Surrealist object, such as the box, seen in the work of Joseph Cornell, the optical machine creating an optical illusion, such as Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs, the poème-objet, made by Breton himself. Writing on the occasion of the exhibition of Surrealist objects, Breton stated,

“The objects that form part of the Surrealist exhibition of May 1936 are of a kind calculated primarily to raise the interdict resulting from the stultifying proliferation of those objects that impinge on our senses every day and attempt to pursue us that anything might exist independently of these mundane objects must be illusionary…”

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Dada and Chance


One of the key tasks of Dada was to undermine the foundations of art by eliminating the notions of artistic “talent,” studio training, and academic means of making art, i.e. planning and composing, or in other words, thinking itself. The artists stumbled upon the means of ending traditional art by chance, as it were. The anti-art anti-movement was christened “Dada,” a word discovered supposedly by chance in a German-French dictionary. “Dada” was a nonsense word, more of a sound than a noun. To the artists’ ears, the absurd word/sound seemed “primitive,” like a child’s babbling. “Dada” implied a re-set, a new beginning at zero for art. The ridiculous word reflected the meaningless of the War to End All Wars.

The role of chance became a central experience for the Dada artist and was developed in two different sites, in Paris, before the War when Marcel Duchamp fastened a bicycle wheel to a stool in a chance encounter, and in Zurich when Hans Arp ripped up a failed drawing and saw that the pieces of papers had formed a “composition” on their own. Arp’s gesture born, like Duchamp’s, out of disgust, was close to the Zurich experiments with poème simultané, a poem written for three or more voices, indicating that a work of art has its own organic destiny. Chance destroys the soothing notion of cause following effect and admits anarchy into art making, foregrounding process. Duchamp, even more than Arp, removes the artist’s hand from the process and gives himself over wholly to the randomness of chance. He ceases to make (for a time) and merely “encounters” readymade objects, appropriates these unoriginal artifacts, and anoints them “Readymades.” The original meaning or intended use of the bicycle wheel or the stool is disrupted: one knows intellectually what each object “does” but understands that what Duchamp called “a new thought” has been created.

Whether the process is that of Duchamp arbitrarily encountering manufactured objects and randomly putting them together, or Arp finding that chance could expressive on its own, these gestures rupture the link between art and the artist’s controlled decision making. The results are transformative and unexpected and a work of art that could not have been made according to the rules comes into being, on its own, organically. As Jacques Riviérè noted, “The Dadas consider words only as accidental: they let them happen. Language for them is no longer a means, it is a being.”

The central component of chance is taking one thing out of context and placing it into another context, demonstrating how meaning is fixed to a site and how meaning is unfixed when location is changed. The result is free association—what does the object mean in its new situation? What does this word mean now that it has been torn out of context? Tzara cut words out of newspapers and placed this motley collection into a bag. He then shook the words out of the bag and let them flutter to a surface. The juxtaposition of word-to-word engendered new meanings for the individual words and for the unexpected combination of words brought together by chance. The viewer or the listener or the reader is now in charge of making meaning out of meaninglessness.

For these artists, an important precursor was Stephane Mallarmé, the nineteenth century poet who first investigated the role of chance. His famous poem, Un coup de des n‘abolira le hazard works with the reader’s/viewer’s senses on many levels. First the words are scattered across the many pages of the long poem, changing positions, changes fonts, leaping and fall, tumbling as if the di were rolling uncontrollably across the surface. The reader must follow this random course with active darting eyes, and, more amusingly, the title itself has a nonsense sound: in French de and des sound the same—very close to “da” ”da.” Although the poem was written in 1897, it was not published until after death of Mallarmé in 1914. Although Martin Puchner in Marx, Manifestos, and the Avant-gardes, states that his poetry was read during Dada performances, I am not trying to make a direct link between the Dada artists and Mallarmé, but merely to point to an important precedent and to a similar mind set already in evidence in the concrete poems of Guillaume Apollinaire and in the “words in freedom” of Futurist poetry.

The more important link is between Marcel Duchamp and Stephane Mallarmé on the basis of linguistic play with words noticeable in both artists. Many of Duchamp’s Readymades show evidence of the artist’s love of visual puns and manipulation of language. In Advance of a Broken Arm is a random title given to a random object. Without any relationship between the title and the object the juxtaposition between two “objects” is a chance one. During his New York period, he often worked with his patron Walter Conrad Arensberg, who shared Duchamp’s love of semiotics. Codes, readable only by those two, appear on the Comb of 1915 and on Box with Hidden Noise of 1916. Although the source of the “hidden noise” is not confirmed, nor will it ever be (only three persons knew what made the sound, Duchamp, Arensberg, and Walter Hopps, all of whom are dead), it is more than likely that it is a die rolling around inside the ball of twine, a homage to Stephane Mallarmé.


Marcel Duchamp took a wooden board studded with hooks for coats and removed the hatrack from its usual position, the wall, and nailed it to the floor of his New York studio. On the floor, the curves of the hooks ceased to be useful and became menacing, leading to the free association of renaming the object as a Trebuchet, or a Trap (1917) that the unwary could trip over. What has been removed by all of these artists, Arp, Tzara, and Duchamp, is the hand and mind of the artist and the making of art has been redirected towards a process that is out of the control of the maker. Man Ray “invented” the Rayogram in order to arrange objects of light sensitive paper and exposing them to the sun with the result that the objects disappeared into their own negative shadows, freeing Ray from the preconceived notion of what a “photograph” should be.

Francis Picabia allowed other artists to “make” L’oeil cacodylate, a painted non-painting shown in 1921 in the Salon des Indépendants, with their own inscriptions and signatures. Without composition or any concept, except that of random collection, this collective work was a redo of an early version and would be redone again and again during the next decade, not because Picabia was attempting to regain control but to continue an arbitrary process without any artistic motive. What all these artists attempted to do was to make an anarchistic anti-art that would, nevertheless, lead to a new way of making a new kind of art. Chance became a way of (not)making art, a means of (not)making an object and substituting a carefully planned and crafted work of art with a new concept, called for lack of a better phrase, the objet trouvé, the found object, “encountered” by chance.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]