Postmodernism and the Loss of Mastery

THEORIES OF POSTMODERNISM

Feminism, Post-Colonialism, and the Loss of Mastery Over the World Picture

In 1986 Postmodern painter Mark Tansey (1949-) produced a large orangish monochrome painting of a long white fallen column. Broken in three places and lying next to a flight of stairs, the pillar vaguely resembles the Vendôme Column toppled by Gustave Courbet and his Communard comrades. The figure that was once on the top could be read as Napoléon in classical dress but over all the fallen totem allegorically reads as the fall of Western civilization and given that the column is phallic, that collapse seems specifically male. In the distance, a razed city spreads out and in the foreground the maternal is on full display: a woman and her children play among the ruins. Tansey, a well-read son of art historians, titled the painting, Triumph Over Mastery.

Modernism thrived upon the grand récits, or master narratives of modernity, which were narratives of mastery, each one a telos of conquest and fundamental solidarity. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) expressed this confidence in “The Age of the World Picture,” a lecture given in 1938 under the title of “The Establishing by Metaphysics of the Modern World Picture.” For Heidegger, Being was “what is given to thinking to think.” As a teacher, Heidegger encouraged his readers and his audience in forceful language to think and to follow though through an evolutionary process of thinking. Humans relate to being through language, which is “the House of Being.” Following the metaphysical tradition of Friedrich Nietzsche, Heidegger placed the self-conscious human subject as dominating through evaluation and judging the world. The modern world describes the world as a picture and conjures up the transformation of the world as a representation. The “world picture” is “taken in such a way that it first is in being and only is in being to the extent that it is set up by man, who represents and sets forth.”

It is the essence of the modern age is that the world becomes a picture. Everything exists only through representation and the world exists only in and through the subject. This narrative is the conquest of the world as picture, which is a structured image, the creature of production. Modernism is characterized by two events, the transformation of the world as a picture and the person as a subject. However, the “world picture” is a delusion and humans who seek to dominate the world can never know themselves or encounters himself and remains alienated from Being. As Heidegger wrote,

Where the world becomes picture, what is, in its entirety, is juxtaposed as that for which man is prepared and which, correspondingly, he therefore intends to bring before himself and have before himself, and consequently intends in a decisive sense to set in place before himself. Hence world picture, when understood essentially, does not mean a picture of the world but the world conceived and grasped as picture. What is, in its entirety, is now taken in such a way that it first is in being and only is in being to the extent that it is set up by man, who represents and sets forth.” Wherever we have the world picture, an essential decision takes place regarding what is, in its entirety. The Being of whatever is, is sought and found in the representedness of the latter.

It is human beings who create the world picture and place themselves “in the picture” they create for themselves.“The being of beings is sought and found in the representedness of beings,” Heidegger said. In contrast to the Greek world view or the Medieval world view, the modern world view or world picture puts humans in the center. As he continued,“Now for the first time is there anything like a position of man at all.”Because we have made the picture, we can place ourselves, position ourselves in the picture, where we wish. This ability to conflate Being with thinking and thus the will to power to create the world picture and to be in the picture–this is power indeed. To be able to create “the world as a picture” is mastery. Associated with Nazi thought (the epitome of mastery) and tainted forever by his association with Nazi ideology and damned by his treatment of his Jewish colleagues, Heidegger is a nearly irredeemable philosopher. As the philosopher Richard Rorty wrote in 1998 in “A Master from Germany,” “Heidegger’s books will be read for centuries to come, but the smell of smoke from the crematories — the ”grave in the air” — will linger on their pages.”

Given that Heidegger was very important to the Postmodern thinkers in France, his continued presence in philosophy presents a problem. In his forward to the important 2009 book by Emmanuel Faye, Heidegger. The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy, Tom Rockmore pointed out that the French scholars turned to Heidegger as an alternative to Jean-Paul Sartre and in the process successfully put his Nazi convictions aside and focused on a very narrow body of his writings. Rockmore stated that Faye’s book, originally published in France, was the first of force the intellectual community to deal with the extent to which, as Faye put it, “Heidegger devoted himself to putting philosophy at the service of legitimizing and diffusing the very bases of Nazism and Hitlerism.” Faye recovered neglected works by Heidegger, characterizing these writings as “..every bit as racist and virulently National Socialist as those of the official “philosophers” of Nazism..they surpass the others by the virulence of their Hitlerism, which no other “philosopher” of the regime has equaled.” To this day, the debate over what to do with Heidegger continues. The past has a way of surfacing at inconvenient times but Heidegger managed to live out the rest of his life relatively unscathed (unlike the Jewish scholars he allowed to be expelled from the university) and the expatriate Yale scholar Paul de Man (1919-1983) was not exposed as a writer for the Nazi cause until four years after his death.

One of the problems of Postmodernism, diehard Modernists claim, is its relativism. If one follows the tenets of intertextuality, “the death of the author” then the writer must be divorced from his or her work and thereby has no moral responsibility for the contents. Heidegger was merely reflecting his own time; de Man was merely surviving during the occupation of Belgium. If it is impossible to “master” language, then this distancing from morality or ethics is an Adamic Fall from Grace. Therefore Postmodernism mourns this loss of mastery and reflects back on its reign with nostalgia. The “mastery” alluded to in Tansey’s painting and in the numerous writings on the fall of Modernism breaks, as did the column of Tansey, at numerous fracture points. The “fall” of the column of mastery was linked to the disillusionment over the failure of the humanist promise of the Enlightenment as exemplified by the stain of Nazism in the philosophy of Martin Heidegger.

The drive towards the desired “end” regardless of the means during the Second World War fractured the moral core of the West. On one hand, the ethnics of ending a destructive war and putting an end to dangerous enemies was not in doubt but the way in which that end came about, whether the fire bombings of Tokyo and Dresden or the nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, provoked a moral quandary. In addition, over time, there was a slow realization that the “greatest generation,” whether in America or France or England, had fought a war for democracy and equality but were not willing to countenance racial or gender equality after the war in their own nation. Nor were any of these Euro-American powers willing to forego their respective empires without a struggle.

By the 1960s, there was the loss of control over the master narrative, the story that explained the world, which will be discussed in another post. Once the metanarrative could no longer be mastered, Postmodernism lost authority, and as the result of a multiplicity of cultural events, the Civil Rights Movement, the protests against the Viet Nam War, the Stonewall uprising, the Women’s Movement, to name a few, there was a decline in the belief system that “liberty and justice” was for “all.” In Europe, the Empire was coming home, forcing European nations to deal with the consequences of their “civilizing” projects and the transnational hybridity that provoked a diaspora and the post-colonial condition. Once the singular voice of the master narrative or the will to power of the dominant group is fractured from the univocal to the polyvocal, the Other began to emerge as an actor. In his seminal essay on women as the “Other,” Craig Owens (1950-1990) quoted Paul Ricour (1913-2005), who wrote in 1962 that “When we discover that there are several cultures instead of just one and consequently at the time when we acknowledge the end of a sort of cultural monopoly, be it illusionary or real, we are threatened with the destruction of our own discovery. Suddenly it becomes possible that there are just others, that we ourselves are an “other”among others.”

Ricour’s “we” was presumably in 1962 white males. In returning briefly to Heidegger’s world picture, one can assume that women were not part of the picture, because as has so often been pointed out by philosophers, women were outside of representation. Rooted in nature or in the pre-linguistic semiotic, women were pictured only in terms of the male symbolic. Michèle Montrelay’s 1978 essay, “Inquiry into Femininity” (Recherches sur la Féminité) coined the term “the ruin of representation. In many ways this essay should be considered a deconstruction of Freudian/Lacanian theory as it related to representation or the entry of the child into the symbolic. She exposed a contradiction lying at the heart of the theory in her recounting of the Oedipal complex. The inescapable fate of Oedipus lay in his inappropriate desire for his mother and the repression of this desire for the mother is the mechanism that brings about the entry into language: the symbolic. Representation, the symbolic substitution, is a creature not only of desire but also of the fear of castration, but as Montrelay pointed out, women have no stake in this game. Being the object of desire, they do not desire and do not have to be repressed; having no penis they do not have to fear castration and hence are not psychically wounded.

The sexuality of women remains, as Montrelay pointed out, “outside” of repression and “the stake of castration is displaced,” meaning that feminine sexuality is “outside of the economy of representation.” “Locating herself as maternal body (as well as phallus),” Montrelay wrote, “..woman cannot repress, ‘lose’ so to speak, the original stake of representation. As in the Greek tragedy, she finds herself threatened by ruin. However, in the principle of such a threat, different processes are at work. For Oedipus, the restitution of the stake occurred by chance or from the Gods. This restitution occurred despite an interdiction. For woman, on the contrary, nothing is forbidden. There are no enunciations, no laws that prohibit the recuperation of the stake. This is because for woman, the real that imposes itself and takes the place of repression and desire, is the real of the body proper.” Therefore the woman, described as the “Dark Continent,” have no stake in the game of representation and her presence serves to break down discourse and ruin representation.

One of the social breakdowns of Postmodernism is the realization that the Other has never had a stake in the game or a place in the world picture and those who are not include or who are excluded will not have the “mastery” of the tools of the master. The response of Postmodern theory to the recognition of the Other was one of passive aggression: to turn Otherness into theory to further silence the others under the discourse of the master who retained the power to represent, all the while critiquing representation. The late Craig Owens in The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism noted that “The absence of discussions of sexual difference in writings about postmodernism, as well as the fact that few women have engaged in the modernism postmodernism debate, suggest that postmodernism may be another masculine invention engineered to exclude women.” Owens was writing in the wake of the realization that, contrary to Heidegger, language has no power to shape the world and the consciousness has no power to shape the subject. But he was also writing, in 1983, in the midst of a social revolution that had resulted in the rise of the Other, including women and gays and lesbians, who were very much involved in the protest against the government’s neglect of the epidemic of AIDS, voices that would have been silenced.

As a gay man interested in the Other, Owens was not alone. Along with many feminist writers, he was joined in his critique of the patriarchy which was extended to the exclusion and othering of people of color. A year after the publication of his essay which noted that the Postmodern male artists–think Julian Schanbel, were reduced to simulating “mastery,” a New York exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art unwittingly presented another example of a nostalgic longing for a Eurocentric mastery long extinct, “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern.” Curated by an aging William Rubin (1927-2006) and the rising star Kirk Varnedoe (1946-2003), the show was blasted by one of the dissident generation of critics, Thomas McEvilley (1939-2013), in “Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief.” He attacked the entire premise of the show which was that Western artists used art from “primitive” cultures to nourish itself, acting from a position of imperialism and exploitation. But the Museum of Modern Art undercut the power of the other and the extent to which the response of the Western artists was disruptive by making the strange familiar, thus mischaracterizing the violence of the “primitive,” decontextualized into vitrines and masking the exploitation of European colonialism. As McEvilley wrote referring to

“the exorcising of the primitive works themselves, which isolated from one another in the virtrines and under the great lights, seem tame and harmless. The blood is wiped off them. The darkness of the unconscious has fled. Their power which is threatening and untamed when it is present, is far way…if the primate works are not seen in their full primitiveness, then any primitive feeling in Modernist allusions to them is bleached out also..the show is about classical Modernism.”

Although today, it is easy to criticize McEvilley for writing in such Eurocentric language, he was quite correct in pointing out that the attempt to “master” the “primitive” was based on a discourse of dominance under the auspices of “affinity” which kept “information at a minimum,” relieving the non-Western objects of their own empowering context, thus bringing each object under Western control. As he wrote, “The sacrifice of the wholeness of things to the cult of pure form is a dangerous habit of our culture..The need to coopt difference into one’s own dream of order, in which one reigns supreme, is a tragic failing. Only fear of the Other forces one to deny its Otherness..I am motivated by the feeling that something important is at issue here, something deeply, even tragically wrong..In depressing starkness, “Primitivism” lays bare the way our cultural institutions relate to foreign cultures, revealing it it as an ethnocentric subjectivity inflated to coopt such cultures and their objects to itself.”

Published in Artforum magazine in the fall of 1984, this article engendered a series of angry replies from Rubin and Varnedoe and became a clarion call for a new generation of art critics and art historians who would fall into the category of Postmodernism, if only because McEvilley had rejected connoisseurship as the basis for an art exhibition. Whether or not the dominant male painters, who staged a vigorous comeback after a decade of feminist art, understood that their (male) social mastery was lost, they were aware that the only way to lay claim to the exhausted tradition of Western painting was to either parody the history of Modernism, like Mark Tansey, or manifest what Craig Owens called “symptoms.” As he stated,

Symptoms of our recent loss of mastery are everywhere apparent in cultural activity today–nowhere more so than in the visual arts..contemporary artists are able to simulate mastery, to manipulate its signs;since in the modern period mastery was invariably associated with human labor, aesthetic production has degenerated today into a massive deployment of the signs of artistic labor–violent, “impassioned” brushwork, for example. Such simulacra of mastery testify, however only to its loss; in fact, contemporary artists seem engaged in a collective act of disavowal–and disavowal always pertains to a loss..of virility, masculinity, potency.

To women and people of color, still kept outside of the art world during the 1980s, it seemed that merely simulating mastery was sufficient to maintain mastery. It would take another generation and another century to find out the consequences of not giving half the sky a stake in the game of culture.

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Podcast 62: Pablo Picasso and Guernica: The Impact

Pablo Picasso, Part Four

For decades one of the most famous and iconic works of modern art was mis-placed, waiting in New York City for the Spanish Republic to return. Predicting the horrors of the Second World War, Guernica had a potency and power that lingered long after the mural was finally sent home to Spain. This podcast discusses the long-term impact of this work of art and recounts how the anti-war statement played an unexpected role in the 2003 war on Iraq.

 

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Abstract Expressionism, The Definition

DEFINING ABSTRACTION EXPRESSIONISM

“Abstract Expressionism” was term coined by Alfred Barr in 1929 in reference to Vasily Kandinsky’s art. “Abstract Expressionism,” as a term, was revived by Robert Coates in The New Yorker in 1946 to characterize work by American artists in the Fifties in New York. Abstract Expressionism refers to the style used by a certain group of artists in New York, a style that is, as its name states, abstract, non-figurative, and expressionist, nonrepresentational. The movement, called the New York School, dated from 1942 to 1952, according to some sources. Stylistically, total abstraction was developed by different artists at different times in their art making. Jackson Pollock became totally abstract by 1947, Willem de Kooning by 1949, but both de Kooning and Pollock returned to figuration by 1950. Therefore, “The New York School,” as a designation can encompass both abstraction and figuration as practiced by the artists. While de Kooning and Pollock went back and forth from abstraction to figuration, the other artists of Abstract Expressionism remained totally abstract for their entire careers.

Over time, stylistic variations among the artists resulted in a division between the Gesture and Color Field branches of The New York School. There was also a division between a downtown group and an uptown group that roughly coincided with the binaries of painterly and linear. In the Gesture group were de Kooning and Pollock and Franz Kline with the possible inclusion of Robert Motherwell and Philip Guston. In the Color Field Group were Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko with the possible inclusion of Robert Motherwell and Adolph Gottileb. As a group the artists knew each other well, but their friendships tended to fluctuate with the passage of time. As the School became commercially successful, the support system became a group of rivals, all competing with each other.

Thanks to early and important exhibitions on Cubism, Kandinsky, and Mondrian, Dada and Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, one of the ironies of art history is that it was the rude, crude, ignorant barbarians of America, the lowly “colonials absorbed, adapted and advanced European avant-garde art years ahead of the Europeans. During the years of the Second World War, the Americans reshaped and reformed European intellectual and spiritual and psychological abstractions into a more “American” idiom. The painters, who were mature artists reaching the peak of their collective powers, sought to both use and to get beyond their European precursors and create work that expressed their unique contributions. The New York School implicitly rejected the small (and feminine) size of the easel paintings favored by the market driven European artists. They had been impressed by the mural of the Mexican artists and wanted to adapt the wall-sized works for portable paintings that would be as big as America.

During the War, most of the artists experimented with combining old traditions of European modernism into new forms. Arshile Gorky seemed to take the early lead in rethinking the inherited tradition, but he committed suicide in 1948. After the war, American artists were aware that Europe was in ruins and that they had momentum of European art had been broken by war. Just as America had “won” the Second World War, Abstract Expressionism reveled in the American post-war spirit of “triumphalism” and celebrated yet another victory over the exhausted Europeans and their dead traditions. Riding high in the Forties and the Fifties, the group of New York artist who came to be called the Abstract Expressionists revitalized a tiring European tradition by infusing abstraction with an idealistic desire to fuse and merge with a (Jungian) universal consciousness, replacing a Freudian neurosis with a Jungian dream of deep, trans-cultural connections common to all living culture-creating beings. In other words, the New York School rejected a “local” European theory from Sigmund Freud and preferred his erstwhile follower, Carl Jung, who had a far more universal approach to collective consciousness.

Jung, like Freud, worked with symbols that could be decoded as messages from a deep consciousness and although Pollock worked with Jungian archetypes, he ultimately abandoned figuration. When working on a large painting for Peggy Guggenheim’s hallway, fittingly called Mural of 1943, Pollock faced the difficulties of painting abstract forms that were energetic and spontaneous on an easel format. Physically, such painting strokes were difficult and Pollock would mull over the final solution to the problem of how to paint freely on a large scale for the next four years. Only in 1947, when he was removed (by his wife, Lee Krasner) from the hard-drinking artists in New York, did he solve the problem. In a small shed, called the “barn” on their rental property in The Springs, Pollock had the room to spread a large unprimed canvas on the floor. Once the canvas was flat rather than vertical, it was possible to redefine “painting.” Instead of stretching and straining up and down a painting propped up against a wall, Pollock could now toss, throw, fling thinned down paint, which arched in the air and fell according to the laws of gravity. Line and color and form became one. “Drip Painting” in which chance and accident became the raison d’être for his work, paintings that were now totally abstract.

From the beginning, the members of The New York School coalesced around two leading figures, Willem de Kooning, respected by all, and Jackson Pollock, admired by many. It was Pollock who “broke through” the wall of European traditions when he fused Cubism and Surrealism and created a new form of painting as drawing and of kinetic accident as automatic writing. In contrast to de Kooning’s continuation of the easel tradition, Pollock tossed a large cut of canvas onto the floor of his studio on Long Island and turned the paintbrush into a throwing tool. It was de Kooning who managed to take the European tradition of Cubism and abstracted fragmentation and turned the idea of multiple points of view into multiple layers of paint. De Kooning constructed or built up his paintings while Pollock flung his paintings through the air and dripped them off the end of a stiffened brush.

Suddenly, the art scene in New York was awakened to this new School that had at last overtaken the Europeans, beating them at their own game. In contrast to Surrealism’s tastefully small home decoration-sized easel paintings that reeked of self-absorption, their works showed an ambitious desire to create huge, all-encompassing works of art to enfold, engulf, and envelop the artist in the creative process and to swallow up the viewer’s vision. Perhaps because it ws a post-War movement, Abstract Expressionism was as high-minded as it was ambitious: genuine high culture at its best, seizing the falling torch of Western culture before the onslaught of totalitarianism, before the six years of Total War could extinguish it. Aware that they were, in effect, Holocaust survivors, Newman and Rothko were especially sensitive to the need to make sure that art mattered, had power and majesty, that art inspired and moved the viewer as a bastion of humanity in an inhuman world.

Whatever their concern with abstraction as a transcendental art, the Abstract Expressionist artists were members of a boy’s club, an all male enclave, with a “no girls allowed” attitude. Wives, Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning, were relegated to secondary status and their art was overshadowed by their husbands’ reputations. The male artists were supported not just by the “wives,” but also by a coterie of male art critics, including Thomas B. Hess, Clement Greenberg, and Harold Rosenberg. Unfortunately for these artists, the New York art world may have inherited the European mantle of modern art, but this world had to recover financially from the war. They would have to wait for some years for the evolution of a gallery system that supported contemporary American art.

Ironically, just as the artists were beginning to find gallery support, museum recognition, and a respectable level of income in a New York recovered from the Second World War, they were challenged by a new generation of artists, the Neo-Dadaists, Rauschenberg and Johns. By 1955, Abstract Expressionism had been rejected by younger artists at the same time the style was finally achieving some acceptance. After Pollock’s death in 1956, de Kooning assumed the mantle of leadership. Unlike Pollock’s idiocyncratic style, de Kooning’s style or his touch or brushwork was easy to assimilate and his followers were characterized as having the “Tenth Street Touch,” after the de Kooning studio on Tenth Street. At the moment Abstract Expressionism garnered the Second Generation, the older artists were eclipsed, much to their dismay, by the young upstarts of the Neo-Dada group.

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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

THE ART SCENE SHIFTS FROM EUROPE TO AMERICA

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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The “Primitivism” of the Fauves

The Question of “Primitivism” and the Fauves

Today, “primitivism” is considered a derogatory term, connoting the Twentieth Century Western attitude towards the presumed “inferiority” of non-Western art. “Primitivism” refers to the abiding belief that non-Western cultures and peoples of color were, by definition, “primitive” and uncivilized and in need of the civilizing influences of European powers. “Primitivism” has become equated with imperialism and colonialism and the exploitation of the Other by the West. A more polite term has replaced primitivism: “Tribal Art,” indicating an indigenous art by non-Western people. However, it is important to note two little discussed facts: first, that the so-called “native” art came from colonized peoples and second, this art was often made expressly for the tourist trade and/or had been altered by Western influences. The tribal art so admired by Parisian artists was likely to be both “African” and inauthentic. By the beginning of the Twentieth Century, fully eighty-five percent of the world was dominated by a tiny group of European nations.

Art critic, Robert Hughes, called the aesthetic pillaging of non-Western art by Western artists “cultural imperialism”—an apt phrase, given that the artistic looting was paralleled by wholesale colonization of the globe. The artists were riveted by the freedom with which the African artists treated the human body. Instead of an anatomically idealized Classical ideal, the African body was not perceptual but conceptual or symbolic in form. The huge mask like faces, the generalized bodies and the stunted arms and legs suggested anything but beauty and beauty and art had long been co-dependent in Western art. The idea that the body could be stylistically and expressively deformed and that the face could be grotesque and morphologically transformed inspired artists in Paris to re-conceptualize the human form.

The early writings on “primitivism,” such as Primitivism and Modern Art (1938) by Robert Goldwater, equated non-Western art with the art making of “undeveloped” people, such as children. But Goldwater valiantly attempted to point out that this equation was made by the art world of pre-War Paris and that the art of Africans was sophisticated and beautifully crafted. “Primitivism” was, instead, a state of mind or a mindset on the part of certain artists, looking for new ideas. African art was “discovered” in Paris around 1904 by the Fauve artists, notably André Derain, and by Pablo Picasso. The sources and sightings included the Musée de l’Homme and artifacts purchased by travelers. Henri Matisse purchased some examples of African tribal art, and the inspiration of these objects appears in his Green Stripe with his wife’s mask-like face. The interest in tribal art caused these artists to shift their attention from the bright colors of Fauvism to the “darker” aspects of the “primitive.” Derain painted a series of clumsy nudes, Bathers, lumbering through a dark jungle and Matisse painted a subdued Blue Nude by 1907. It is highly unlikely that any of these artists knew or cared about the original (and probably lost) meanings of the tribal works or about how the art might have functioned in tribal societies. Fauve “primitivism” consisted of seizing upon new ideas and absorbing the concepts and adapting the tribal for the avant-garde.

As the book, Primitivism, cubism, abstraction: The Early Twentieth Century, put it,

The appeal of African and Oceanic objects for the Fauves as rooted in those same interests and assumptions, which underpinned the appeal of Gauguin’s work for the group. They signified the exotic or the ‘primitive’ redefined according to a Western avant-garde artistic code. Moreover, the absence of an accessible iconography or history to these objects allowed them to be easily absorbed into a modern artistic culture.

In their own time, the Fauves inherited the Nineteenth Century’s fear of anarchism and political chaos and were called barbarians (or wild beasts), indicating a baleful anti-authoritarian attitude. The Fauves may have been seeking new artistic ideas but they had no intention of overthrowing any governments. To the establishment mind, any feints, no matter how remote, against the prevailing powers, was a threat and had to be countered with cries of childishness, youthfulness, and dangerous waywardness. The possible Dionysian attitudes of the Fauves and their rollicking colors seemed quite possible compared to the regal and serene murals of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, painted in cool cerebral colors. But the Fauves were more interested in stripping modern art of tradition and in finding new ways to draw and new reasons to paint than in importing tribal art into their art world. What drew them to African art was the powerful urge to withdraw from an over industrialized landscape into something more simple, hence “primitive,” and primal: the lost atavistic golden age.

The “Primitivism” of the Fauves could be found in their choice of subjects—the nudes bathing in landscape with a new treatment of the human body. Compared to Emile Bernard’s painting of nudes in a landscape in 1097 in which the artist expressly contrasted the women to nature, the Fauve nude is part of landscape and is co-extensive with nature. The nude and the landscape are drawn and colored and painted without hierarchy, with equality. There is no humanistic center, only a reduction of the painting to a mood. There is no unified action and there is no exterior determinant or reason for the picture to exits other that the figures that fill the frame. The forms are psychologically unrelated to each other and the figures are rendered unimportant by the random cutting of the edges by Derain and Vlaminck. In the fantasy world of Matisse, nudity accepted as being a signifier of harmony between humans and bucolic nature in a pastoral landscape.

The Fauve artists simplified their lines, often leaving them unfinished or forgotten about, as if a child had been distracted by another task. Also child-like (in the sense that Friedrich Schiller meant it) is the use of large areas of pure and undifferentiated color, floating unanchored by perspective. In addition to their appreciation of children’s art and the naïve art of Henri Rousseau, the Fauves were not concerned about the traditional subtleties of drawing and attempted to find simplicity (primitivism). The artists wanted to communicate directly with the spectator by replacing the world of objects with basic human emotions (considered “primitive” by authoritarian regimes). Some of the more immature artists, such as Vlaminck were dependent upon violent effects of color and upon the sensationalism of deliberate dissonance, but Fauvism sought merely a return and renewal of a more direct way of living and of self-expression. The “primitivism” of Fauvism was a means to an end, not the end itself.

In fact, the Fauve turn towards the “primitive” was brief, a mere glitch on the way to the end of the movement. The same was true of Picasso who used “primitivism”—Iberian and African influences—to start but never finish Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) on the way to Cubism. The whole concept of “primitivism” and the influence of tribal art on Modern Art was revived after the two world wars and was reordered as a kind of formal affinity. The last gasp of “affinity” was the 1984 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, “Primitivism” in Twentieth Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern,” curated by William Rubin. Rubin came under a barrage of criticism by a younger generation of art critics, such as Thomas McEvilley, for equating modernism with the universal and for viewing tribal art as a kind of raw material for Western artists to elevate into transcendence. As McEvilley charged, the curators wanted to present modern art as a creative process, not as an art of appropriation (in the sense of colonialism). More tellingly, in “Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief,” McEvilley pointed out that Rubin’s so-called affinity was based upon a morphological resemblance without establishing any connection between selected examples of non-Western art and modern art.

In the end, after a few short eventful years, the imfluence of Fauvism far outweighed its duration. Although the art of Matisse suggested that the logic of form or reality could be created thru color, this liberation of color did not immediately affect Twentieth Century art, due to the monochrome of Cubism. But for the more mainstream art world, lagging behind the avant-garde, there were educational consequences. The bright colors helped painters to leave Impressionism and to come to terms with Post-Impressionism. The late Cézannist period of Fauvism combined a Western structure and geometricism with “primitivism” by 1907.

After Ernst Ludwig Kirchner saw Fauve paintings in Berlin in 1908, Die Brücke in northern Germany took up this route of structured “primitivism,” or sharp edged figures. Although Matisse’s work in Berlin in 1908 was badly reviewed, Die Brücke artists began heightening their palettes and simplifying their forms. Both the Fauves and Die Brücke were impacted by tribal art, with the German artists finding or “discovering” the new forms in the ethnographic museum in Dresdent. Both groups were actively seeking a return to nature and saw “primitivism” as a means to accomplish a more simple way of life. In contrast, the Munich group, Der Blaue Reiter, led by Kandinsky and Jawlensky, saw Fauvism at Salon d’automne in 1905 and were inspired by the formal innovations. By 1908, Kandinsky at Murnau, near Munich, mixed the Fauve technique of high color and flat planes with Post-Impressionist exaggerated broken brushstrokes. Interestd in Bavarian folk art, Jawlensky used high pitched colors, harsh bright outlining, complementary shadows, all borrowed from the Fauves to create a kind of raw modern folk art in the frontal aspect of his painted mask like faces.

Formally speaking, “primitivism” led the Fauves and those influenced by them to find an all-over construction through color. Reductiveness and simplicity, directness of means and a search for the basic elements of art, stripped of conventions—-all were hallmarks of Fauvism. The desire to return and to renew suggested a reliance on instinct, indicated through intense color and free form that indicated a primal wildness. In Fauvism, imagination and feeling ruled, but being French, their formal dislocations were tempered and tamed by a devotion to the decorative. To the art intellectuals, this frankly decorative tendency, especially on the part of Matisse, was an excursion into the exotic, the “primitive,” the alien Other to the civilized European. The “primitivism” of Fauvism, like Fauvism itself, waned. Derain and Vlaminck became virulently conservative, especially after the Great War and Braque became a controlled Cubist and Matisse became a cultural lion, a giant of the Twentieth Century. Fauvism was tamed and the Fauves grew up.

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Podcast 39 Painting 5: Art Between the Wars

Art Between the Wars

Although art history usually passes over this inter-war period quickly, pausing only for Dada and Surrealism, these decades were significant for the continued development of painting. After decades of avant-garde art, Europeans began to consolidate the innovations and inventions of the new century. While the art scene in Paris returned to conservative market-based art, the experimental mind-set shifted to Berlin, the new capital of art between the wars.

 

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