Picasso and Parade, Making Art during Wartime, Part Two

Making Parade. Ballet réaliste (1917)

Pablo Picasso during the Great War

Part Two

When Guillaume Apollinaire (1888-1918) scribbled the word, “Surrealism” on his program for the new ballet, Parade (1917), on May 18, 1917, he added a new word to the art dictionary. He later included a substantive definition, of sorts: “When man wanted to imitate walking, he invented the wheel, which does not look like a leg. Without knowing it, he was a Surrealist.” The poet liked the term and all that it implied and used the terminology again for his own play of the same year, Les Mamelles de Tiresias. As his biographer Wayne Andrews explained, Apollinaire himself had origins one could describe only a surreal. His mother was Russian but his father was mysterious and unknown, but he may have been “the illegitimate son of the duke of Reichstadt, the only child or Napoléon I and Marie-Louise of Austria.” His mother Angelica took Guillaume and his brother, also of unknown origins to Monte Carlo with her latest lover, who later took his makeshift family to Belgium. When the mother and children were abandoned, they left then spa hotel without paying the bill and, when they arrived in Paris, the police promptly arrested them. The charges were eventually dropped and Wilhelm Albert Włodzimierz Apolinary Kostrowicki, now Guillaume Apollinaire, a budding poet, worked as a bank clerk, a pornographer and author of Mirely (1900), and a tutor. By 1911 he was established as an art critic and as a poet but somehow he was entangled in the theft of the Mona Lisa, because he had stolen two Iberian heads from the Louvre as gifts for his friend Pablo Picasso, who wisely returned the sculptures to the museum. Apollinaire briefly went to jail and Picasso pretended not to know the light-fingered poet.

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Their friendship recovered from this rather strange setback, and the two misfit, one Russian and one Spanish, artists in Paris remained friends to the end, which sadly came soon. Guillaume Apollinaire weakened by a head wound, died of influenza in November of 1918. In his article, “I Seem to be at a Great Feast: the War Pomes of Guillaume Apollinaire,” TonyHoagland, described the odd circumstances of his being struck by stray shrapnel: “In March 1916, while reading a Paris newspaper in the trench, he was struck by a flying piece of shrapnel that pierced his helmet. He realized he had been wounded only when blood dripped onto his paper. The shrapnel was extracted, but his condition complicated; he was trepanned at a battlefield hospital and eventually sent back to Paris.” Thanks to this event, Apollinaire could return to his former career as poet and critic and could be present at the performance of Parade at the Théâtre de Châtelet that May evening in time to view a new art form. The ballet Parade combined disparate musical tendencies, clashing but totally au courante, a jarring experience described by Christopher Schiff as “a compromise of French theatrical music and Futurist noise.”

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The unlikely concoction, a mash-up of avant-garde impulses in art and music, Parade was Picasso’s opportunity to get out of a Paris, darkened by a lingering war, and to test himself in a new discipline, theater. The performance, for which Picasso did the theater curtain or the rideau rouge, the costumes and the sets, established him as a contradiction in terms, a successful avant-garde artist. Before the Great War, the avant-garde artists in Paris lived precariously, dependent upon a few art dealers willing to attempt to sell their wares. The most famous or infamous Cubists in Paris were the Salon Cubists, who did handsome paintings, colorful interpretations of the late works of Paul Cézanne. Long scorned by art history, which officially labeled them as “minor Cubists,” these artists were, in fact the ones who carried the burden of the outrage of Cubism through their public exhibitions, while Picasso and his partner, Georges Braque, were able to work in their studios in private, supported by their German art dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. To the mainstream art audience which frequented the Salon des Indépendents and the Salon d’Automne, Picasso and Braque were better known through their reputations for being advanced than for their actual works. But when the Great War began in August 1914, Picasso abruptly lost his German dealer and his German clientele. As was discussed in the previous post, he was forced to find Parisian support, but perhaps most importantly, the artist, a Spaniard, did not have to serve in the military. While the lives and careers of the other avant-garde artists were interrupted–indeed, some of these artists never came home–Picasso, protected by his nationality, was able to continue to develop his art.

Moving fluidly to a tamed and commercial version of Cubism, Picasso redefined himself as a more marketable artist to his Parisian dealer, Léonce Rosenberg. But parallel to the new conservative and decorative turn in his Cubism, Picasso was experimenting with a return to an Ingres-like classicism, signaling that he was bored with Cubism and wanted to move on. One could make a case that Parade is the last great statement on Cubism from Pablo Picasso and that it is his farewell to his former life, before he began a new stage for his career. The Ballet Russes was no stranger to scandalous ballets and it might be suspected that impresario Sergei Diaghilev used the occasional whiff of frisson as counter punctual shocks to his more conventional performances. Dressed as a Harlequin, Jean Cocteau had approached the famous Cubist artist Pablo Picasso paying homage to Picasso’s recent painting in hopes of assembling a truly avant-garde group of artists to attract the attention of Diaghilev. Cocteau wanted his own scandal, and, apparently, so did the composer Eric Satie, who was his co-creator of Parade. The ballet, on the strength of a one page script, would be put together in Rome.

Given the nationality of the Ballet Russes, its leaders and its dancers, it was impossible to return to Russia, and, for the duration of the War, the company was exiled, so to speak, in Rome. When Picasso, not a great traveler, arrived in the city, he was thirty five years old, ready to settle down as a married and respectable artist. However, his most recent liaisons, after the death of Eva, were not exactly women of virtue. Instead Gaby Lespinasse and Irène Lagut, culled from the ranks of artists’ mistresses, loved him and left him, moving on to other destinies. It was by chance that Picasso found himself in Rome, without a current lover, and was offered an opportunity to marry beyond his station, something artists seldom managed to do. Always open to new women, Picasso set his sights on one of the dancers, Olga Khokhlova, the daughter of a colonel, an engineer for the Russian railroad. As John Richardson, Picasso’s premier biographer noted, Olga was a “lady” to be courted, wooed and wed, in a proper fashion, because, as the author said, she was “unbearable.” In the midst of flirting with Olga, Picasso had to learn how to be a set designer. Most of his Cubist paintings were of modest size, following his larger earlier works, such as Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). By 1915, the size of his paintings again increased as did the intensity of the color, but the art of working for a viewer who would be close the the work was quite different from creating costumes, for example, that had to be read at a distance. The gifted costume and set designer, Léon Bakst, of an entirely different generation and state of mind from Picasso, nevertheless taught him which colors worked best on stage.

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Picasso and his assistants, working on the theater curtain

Picasso also worked with the young second-generation Futurists, Enrico Prampolini and Fortunate Depero, who would become Fascist artist of aeropittura after the War. Their decorative and graphic combination of Cubism and Futurism, easy to read and suitable for mass audiences, gave Picasso an idea of the fate of avant-garde art in the future but also suggested a way to capture the attention of the resistant ballet goers. Indeed, one can find traces of Futurism in Parade. When Futurism was first introduced in Paris in 1912, the Italian entry into the avant-garde stakes, was summarily rejected by the Cubists. But in Picasso’s work for the ballet, Futurism, far more than the rather staid and static Cubism, was better suited to the energetic circus theme.

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According to Roland Penrose, Picasso had always been receptive to Futurism and was fond of Boccioni who, by the time, he was in Rome, had died in battle. Between tours of Rome and Naples, viewing works of ancient and classical and Renaissance art that would inform his work of the 1920s, Picasso began to make Parade his own, boldly changing Cocteau’s ideas, including stripping spoken dialogue in favor of pantomime. He added three Managers and a Horse, challenging the poet at every turn. Picasso took over the curtain that was to be closed during a rather long prelude composed by Satie, realizing that it had to be more interesting than Cocteau’s ideas that the drape be emblazoned with the names of the performers, like a still in a film. Indeed the entire ballet is an homage to popular culture, the circus and the music hall, vaudeville, Wild West shows and even American silent films, especially those of Charlie Chaplin.

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Satie wove in ordinary songs sung by everyone, popular ragtime, all punctuated by unexpected noises, trains, dynamos, planes. Picasso was fascinated by puppet shows and street theater in Italy, particularly in Naples, and began including local Italian elements. As Satie, his collaborator in thwarting Cocteau, wrote, “Parade is changing, for the better, behind Cocteau! Picasso has ideas that please me better than those our Jean! And Cocteau doesn’t know it!” Of course, Cocteau did not remain in the dark and came to accept Picasso’s perspective on his libretto which, to be truthful, really rested upon the vision of Picasso.

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The now-famous curtain was a case in point. When the ballet finally opened in Paris at the Théâtre du Châtelet, in May, the news from the Western front was terrible. The battles of the Somme and Verdun had caused massive casualties and France was bleeding young men, as an entire generation was being wiped out. In such an atmosphere, the audience, already hostile to Cubism and to Picasso, expected to be disrespected and confronted with a style they had been taught to hate. Due to the nationality of Cubism’s dealer, Kahnweiler and his main clients, Cubism was thought of as not French, but German, and the audience in wartime were bristling in anticipation. But the rideau surprised and calmed them. The great drop of cloth recalled a French circus poster, referenced Edgar Degas, Georges Seurat, and Toulouse Lautrec, who were on the verge of being acceptable to mainstream culture mavens. Instead of a Cubist assault, the audience was treated to a fairy tale version of an enchanted circus, like the Cirque Médrano, something loved and remembered from their childhoods. In fact, Parade, as the name suggested, was inspired by the fête foraine, an annual event in which a group of circus performers would execute a few short scenes, according to musicologist Nancy Perloff, on a platform or small stage, a parade. Although this kind of entertainment was long extinct, it had survived in the form of advertising and the word “parade” implied a spectacle, a concept that inspired Cocteau, Satie and Picasso. So at first, the audience could enjoy a comforting nostalgia, the faint perfume of the past.

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However, once the curtain rose, Cubism, accompanied by Satie’s now lively music, laced with modern sounds, such as typewriters and refrains borrowed from jazz, appears. The three Managers, so large they constituted moving scenery, asserted themselves. The ballet dancers inside were miserable, and the audience, outraged at the Cubist designs, found their worst fears realized. Shouts of “Go back to Berlin” and accusations of “Shirkers” and “Draft dodgers” rocked the theater. Massine’s deliberately awkward choreography did little to calm the outraged reactions, and the audience threw oranges.

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When Apollinaire rose in his sky blue uniform, his head bandaged in the honor of France and pleaded for calm, some order was restored. The plot itself was simple: a Chinese magician, a young America girl, inspired by Mary Pickford, and an acrobat from the Rose period, street performers, worked onto boulevard to lure the public into the circus.

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The Managers, with skyscrapers on their heads, were their exploiters and the villains of the piece. For Cocteau, the meaning was symbolic, for the audience the meaning was lost in the presence of the dreaded Cubism, for the critics, Parade was shark meat and they spiritedly attacked in a pack. Satie, who had been slapped by a member of the audience, was accused of bochisme (being German) and his exchanges with his critics resulted in lawsuits that bankrupted him.

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The accusations of being a traitor to France were unjust for Satie’s music included and consisted of the sounds of modern Paris itself. As Barbara L. Kelly noted inMusic and Ultra-modernism in France: A Fragile Consensus, 1913-1939,

Parade confirmed Satie’s central role as a harbinger of the new. It marked a shift in musical priorities from a focus on sonority and exoticism to a search for inspiration in the mainly Parisian everyday. In common with many of his peers, the ballet also represents a move away from narrative towards abstraction, a tendency that was becoming increasingly important in the dramatic ventures of Stravinsky and Diaghilev..

Of course, in time, Parade would become recognized as one of the great avant-garde ballets of the twentieth century, a classic, the first Cubist theatrical event, but on the 18th of May, 1917, once again, only Apollinaire was capable of rising to the defense of the collision between fine art and popular culture, France and America, sophisticated music and ordinary sound, poetry and farce, delivered in the spirit of the new visual invention, film. As he wrote for L’excelsior, contemplating his own notes on the program, about the idea of “surrealism,” which he understood in terms of a Gesamtkunstwerk, or a new realism:

From this new alliance, for until now stage sets and costumes on one said and the choreographer on the other side had only a sham bond between them, there has come about, in Parade, a kind of super-realism (sur-réalisme), in which I see the starting point of a series of manifestations of this new spirit (esprit nouveau), which, finding today the opportunity to reveal itself, will not fail to deuce the elite, and which promises to modify arts and manners from top to bottom for the wold’s delight, since it is only common sense to wish that arts and manners reach at least to the same height as scientific and industrial progress.

The result was a layering of literature, painting, dance, and music, each coming from a different sphere, far removed from the traditions of classic ballet. Parade dragged dance into the modern world, laid the foundation for artists like John Cage to reconsider the role of noise, and provided Picasso with the caché in world of the Right Bank. He was now a suitable match for the highly ranked Olga. For Picasso, Parade had served its purpose.

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The bad reviews, the elimination of the ballet from the repertoire of the Ballet Russes, Satie’s quarrels with his detractors were mere backdrops to his eventual marriage to Olga and his entrance into bourgeoisie life. Apollinaire died two days before the Armistice, and Parade would be revived in 1920. According to Mary E. Davis in Classic Chic: Music, Fashion, and Modernism, Americans loved Parade and, even after its disastrous Parisian premier, the young nation responded positively to a ballet that displayed such unabashed love of American culture. Unlike his former partner, Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso emerged from the War, a prominent artist, ready to preside over the post-war art world, an old master before he was forty. His dealer was Paul Rosenberg, who found him and his elegant wife suitable lodgings in the rue de la Boëtie. By the end of the War, the Spanish avant-garde artist had found his place in Paris at last.

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

Thank you.

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Debating Timothy O’Sullivan (1840-1882) Part One

Timothy O’Sullivan: Exploring the West

Part One

In retrospect, it is something of an oddity that twenty-one year old Timothy O’Sullivan was not drafted into the ranks of the Union Army for the American Civil War. After all many young Irishmen, fresh to the shores of their adopted country voluntarily joined the military in hopes of quelling the rising anti-Irish sentiment in the Northeast towards foreigners. But O’Sullivan found another role for himself in the terrible war, as assistant photographer to Alexander Gardner, covering the aftermaths of battles and making a unique record of the waging of the first modern industrialized conflict and it unimaginable costs. The point may seem a small one–O’Sullivan did not fight in the Civil War—but his point of origin is uncertain and it is not known where he was born. At one point, the photographer claimed that he was born in America, but upon his death, his own father noted for the official record that his son, an obscure documenter of the American West, had been born in Ireland. And it seems more than probable that the elder Mr. Sullivan was correct: if Timothy O’Sullivan had been of Irish descent and born in America, he would have been drafted and we would remember the Civil War in a far different fashion. Along with Gardner, O’Sullivan made iconic images, once long-lost and forgotten, of a tragic war are now an indelible part of our national psyche. Only two years later, O’Sullivan embarked upon another groundbreaking journey, going into remote corners of a vast desert territory in the American West, in the employ of a man in search of catastrophes.

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Clarence King, Salt Lake City, Utah Camp, October 1868

That man was Clarence King (1842-1901), who had also not served in the military during the Civil War. His reasons for not being a soldier seem to be somewhat different. The facts are sketchy, but, given that this young man was once arrested and charged with being a “draft dodger” and given the fact that the case was dropped, suggest that the wealth and privilege of his family exempted him from service. Although the Civil War was a highly emotional conflict and we remember it as being a morally driven cause on both sides, the actual potential combatants were hardly enthusiastic about serving. Like the Viet Nam war, one hundred years later, the privileged young men could avoid the war, while the lower class males–who really had no economic stakes in play–bore the burden. While O’Sullivan was roaming the killing grounds, Clarence King was studying geology and acquainting himself with the scientific debates of his day. On one hand, King was an intellectual and an academic, on the other hand, he was a bit of an adventurer and a believer in the manifest destiny of America, which would be carried forward on the tracks of railroad lines. The Yale graduate of the Sheffield Scientific School became the leader of the Survey of the 40th Parallel at a time when the surveys of the unchartered sections of the West were transitioning away from the military and into the hands of scientists. The goal was not military conquest but conquest through scientific marking and a study of the geology, the natural resources and mineral wealth that coincidentally lay along the route of the railroad. As King later remarked, “Eighteen sixty-seven marks, in the history of national geological work, a turning point, when the science ceased to be dragged in the dust of rapid exploration and took a commanding position in the professional work of the country.”

O’Sullivan, an experienced photographer, was, for all intents and purposes, a valuable member of the crew that worked with King. While the scientists and geologists collected specimens and made scientific observations and recordings, the role of the photographer was to make visual records of the typology, the landscape, the vistas, the details of the terrain. It was not his job, for example, to photograph flora and fauna or insects or the animals killed and turned into artifacts. O’Sullivan photographed the land itself and here is where his task transcends mere objective record and metamorphosed into something quite different, resulting in a body of dramatic photographs, flattened vistas composed of shapes and shadows and edges, suggesting to modern eyes an almost abstract view of terrain. Although O’Sullivan worked with King for three seasons from 1867 to 1869, the Survey leader seems to have made sparing use of the photographs which do not seem to have been given any more value than any other artifact collected during the project. O’Sullivan’s work with King was intermittent and he also spent several seasons with the (Lieutenant George) Wheeler Survey of the 100th Meridian during 1874, 1875, and 1876. During his tenure with the Wheeler Survey, O’Sullivan was working with photographer William Bell, who would be given less responsibility than the Irishman, perhaps due to his less experienced status. These images were published in an album, which according to Lauren Higbee in her article on “The Wheeler Album: Photographic Rhetoric and the Politics of Western Expansion,” was a site of political maneuvering amongst the above participants as well as a political toolwielded by Congress to legitimize its policies in post-Civil War America amid a time of great political corruption and upheaval.” Higbee looked at that album as an “exhibition,” if you will, of the government funded project and functioned as both an advertisement of accomplishment and a scientific showcase of an unknown region of the nation.

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Timothy O’Sullivan.View of the White House, Ancestral Pueblo Native American (Anasazi) ruins in Canyon de Chelly

In fact, the body of work produced by O’Sullivan faded from memory and was stored away until seventy years later the photographer Ansel Adams stumbled across O’Sullivan’s landscapes. According to a 2008 article by Britt Salvesen, then of the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, Adams had acquired an 1874 album from Sierra Club officer Francis Farquhar. This album was the Geographical Explorations and Surveys West of the 100th Meridian, a record of Wheeler’s Survey, which O’Sullivan joined between sessions with King. Perhaps the most famous of the images by O’Sullivan was that of Canyon de Chelly, a striking cliff face in New Mexico. Later Adams himself would retrace the footsteps of O’Sullivan and photograph the site from the same vantage point on his own, but formally speaking, O’Sullivan was seen as a precursor of modernism and placed in the emerging photographic canon. Although those art historians who are more interested in historical context and social conditions are less interested in the O’Sullivan-the-modernist narrative, the photographer still holds a privileged place in the photographic pantheon and this elevation is still based upon the striking visual nature of many of his works.

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Timothy O’Sullivan. Vermillion Cañon, Colorado (1872)

By the 1930s, photographers were used to skewed views of the landscape, odd oblique camera angles and unexpected vantage points and O’Sullivan’s photographs were seen within this new context, a context that did not exist when he was working for King and later for another military and mapping survey, for Lieutenant George Wheeler in 1869. Adams called the prescient images taken by O’Sullivan to the attention of Beaumont Newhall of the Museum of Modern Art, and Newhall included O’Sullivan in his centenary (and landmark) celebration of photography, “Photography: 1839–1937,” held in the Spring of 1937. Salvesen mentioned that Adams interpreted O’Sullivan’s work in light of Surrealism, a movement now waning. (There was also the body of Surrealist photography that was emerging from this current movement, but the exact reference of Adams is unclear and he probably was speaking metaphorically). Thanks to the newly established department for photography at the Museum there would be a genuine and on-going attempt to build a historical archive for American photography which would lead to previously ignored works being rediscovered and reconsidered, including O’Sullivan, whose work was also admired by Alfred Stieglitz.

Is is unclear, in 1937, the extent to which the full range of the photography of the West was either known or understood, and it is also unclear if Adams or Newhall understood the extent to which O’Sullivan’s work was “strange,”so to speak, compared to his contemporaries. But Adams apparently sensed something different about what O’Sullivan had done for the survey parties and the term “surrealism” became a handy trope to connote the strong and striking difference between these prints on albumen paper and those by William Bell or William Henry Jackson. But to call any of the photographers of the Western surveys “art” photographers would be incorrect. These were professional photographers, hired hands, following instructions, but they had apparently incorporated, if only through a cultural and visual osmosis, the language of landscape painting and the artifices, such as making sure there is a repoussoir in the foreground and a recession into a vast expanse, all framed in a proper Claudian structure, then three hundred years old. Even though photography was supposedly a record of the real, the observed, the devices used by painters to suggest an illusion of depth, were repeated by the landscape photographers who used the known and the familiar to situate the viewer, even, as in the Western views, the scenes were so unfamiliar they bordered on the “surreal.” The extent to which O’Sullivan deviated from the established norm, ignoring all landscape conventions, was noticeable in the late 1930s but it was the work of re-photographer Rick Dingus forty years later that demonstrated the originality of the work of Timothy O’Sullivan.

Headed by Mark Klett, who was working with protohistorian Ellen Manchester, and sponsored by the National Endowment of the Arts and the Polaroid Corporation, the Rephotographic Survey Project was active between 1977 and 1979. JoAnn Verburg was the research coordinator who led the photographers, Rick Dingus and Gordon Bushaw to the exact locations–site, time of day, time of year–where nineteenth century photographers, William Henry Jackson, John K. Hillers, Andrew J. Russell, and Timothy O’Sullivan, once stood photographing the West. On the surface, the Rephotographic Survey Project was a simple retracing of the steps of the originators of Western photography to see how the land had changed, had become overgrown by tourism and otherwise modernized or not, but for a photographer, rephotographing these sites was a chance to analyze the decisions made by their precursors. Carleton Watkins, it is well known, established conventional “views” or the best vantage points for the visitor to Yosemite, but the survey photographers were recording a process of scientific investigation–O’Sullivan’s brief–or a period of technological conquest–the work of A. J. Russell, and it was far from certain that their images would ever find their way to a broad public audience. The intended audience was corporate and political and the often pedestrian language of the pictures reflects that expectation on the part of the employers that the images should be descriptive accompaniments to a more precise discussion provided by proper scientists.

Rick Dingus found that O’Sullivan seemed to be working under a different set of instructions, and in doing so he opened up a new discourse on Timothy O’Sullivan, seemingly adding to the thesis of Ansel Adams and Beaumont Newhall–that Timothy O’Sullivan was a photographic formalist, an abstractionist, avant la lettre. But other perspectives on the photographer would emerge over the ensuing decades. It is these “pure” landscape photographs that are of most interest to historians. But how “pure” are these landscapes by Timothy O’Sullivan?

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Witches Rock #1, Timothy O‘Sullivan, 1869; Witches Rock #1, Rick Dingus for the Rephotographic Survey Project, 1978

In his 1994 article, “Territorial Photography,” Joel Snyder noted that the standard and established use of photographs as “integumental likeness–as passive recordings of preexisting sights.” This passivity and mirroring, not just of what could be seen but of what the audience expected to see, responded, Snyder suggested to the expanding interest in documentary photography. The author related how photographers of the West could find an audience to view and to purchase their views, indicating that these operators were aware of the commercial need to please the customers. But Snyder’s point was more subtle than mere horizon of expectations, he was suggesting that photographs were intended to respond to and to create a collective way of seeing, something he called “distributed vision” or “disinterested” seeing that transcended the individual. These conventions of viewing photographs of the West, based on paintings of the past, were augmented by implied promises of new beginnings in a supposedly virgin land, full of possibilities and ripe for exploitation.

But Timothy O’Sullivan produced a body of counter-images, termed by Synder, as “contrainvitational,” expressing the inherent “hostility” of desperate deserts and high hard rocks of the West. If Snyder is correct, we might assume that because his photographs were intended for a more limited audience, O’Sullivan seized the opportunity to photograph the West in a fashion that foregrounded the unknown. This land was, as Snyder put it, “terra incognito, as a world different from ours, unfamiliar, inhospitable, and terrifying.” Snyder concluded: “O’Sullivan’s photographs, then, are not to be understood as scientific documents, but as something like pictorialized ‘No Trespassing’ signs.” Was it the intention of O’Sullivan to create a vision of forbidden places, too dangerous for the tourist, much less the aspiring settler? We know, as Snyder points out that O’Sullivan, as he had done during the Civil War, manipulated the photographic outcome for dramatic effect, highlighting a stray sand dune to suggest an engulfing desert, but how do his actions–carried out in the midst of scientific exhibitions–square with the idea of a truthful survey of unmapped territory?

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Desert Sand Hills near the Sink of Carson, Nevada (1867)

The next post will continue to examine the debate around the intentions of Timothy O’Sullivan and the interpretations of his oeuvre.

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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Michel Foucault: “This is not a Pipe”

MICHEL FOUCAULT (1926 – 1984)

PART THREE

This is not a Pipe (1968)

Michel Foucault’s essay, This is not a Pipe, his contemplation on a famous painting by René Magritte, La trahison des images (Ceci n’est pas une pipe) (1929) can be read as a follow-up to his earlier analysis of the much larger painting by Diego Velasquez, Las Meninas (1656). Both essays–“Las Meninas” was the introduction to The Order of Things (1966) and This is not a Pipe is a small book in its own right–are about the same length and are concerned with the question of representation. In addition, La trahison des images (1929) can be sequenced in relation to Las Meninas (1656) in that Las Meninas is part of the “Classical” episteme and La trahison des images is an examination of the Modern episteme. The Belgium Surrealist, René Magritte (1898-1967), had long defined himself as a thinker (philosopher) who used paint to explore philosophical issues. Throughout his career he had read not only Heidegger and Sartre, but he had also lived long enough to read the early works of Foucault, such as Les mots et les choses, published a few years before his death. Indeed Magritte made a connection between the two paintings. As he wrote to Foucault in 1966:

“It is as completely invisible as pleasure or pain. But painting interposes a problem: there is the thought that sees and can be visible described. Las Meninas is the visible image of Velásquez’s invisible thought? Then is the invisible sometimes visible? on condition that thought be constituted exclusively of visible images.”

Starting with a drawing in 1926, Magritte used the pipe in a number of his paintings but the best known version of the “pipe” is in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The painting is medium sized, carefully rendered in tones of browns. As was the usual case with Magritte, paint is smoothly applied to neuter its expressive qualities and to foreground the concern with the relationship between language and perceived “reality.” A wooden pipe with curved stem floats unaided against a café au lait background, isolated except for a carefully executed sentence “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” placed underneath the pipe. Except for the “not,” the painting is a mirror image of a schoolbook with images labeled with the attendant words. With one word, Magritte undermined the metaphysical connection, assumed by Plato, that held between words and things. Magritte also severed the “pointing” gesture of the word “this” which now has an ambiguous referent: to what does “this” refer–the pipe, the canvas, the sentence itself?

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René Magritte. This is Not a Pipe (1929)

Always interested in language, Foucault explored the modern system of representation, and he again turned to art to explore alternatives to Structuralism and its reliance on representational systems. When he wrote This is not a Pipe, which was published in Les Cahiers du chemin in 1967, Foucault’s attack on Structuralism landed in the middle of an ongoing debate in the French press on literary theory. Using a painting by Magritte came naturally to Foucault who was in correspondence with the artist and like many writers of his generation, he was interested in Surrealism and its strategies that attempted to undo narrative connections that made the world make sense. Foucault explored the gaps between discourses and events and sought to say the unsaid in order to defamiliarize. As the Comte de Lautréamont once said, the Unfamiliar or the Marvelous was “..as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.”

The themes Magritte explored on canvas were deliberately “disorientating” and showed a fascination with visual non sequiturs and heterotopias. The term heterotopia in medical terms means the displacement of an organ from its accustomed place. In art, Magritte displaced part of one body and relocated it to another body, such as his carrot-bottle, his fish-human, with disconcerting results. To be clear, the union of fish and female is not metamorphosis but a forced fusion that is fixed and arbitrary. In The Order of Things, Foucault refers to the “heterotopia,” or a place where multiplicities co-existed. The heterotopia was produced by linking together that which was “incongruous” producing an even worse kind of disorder. All the possible orders exist separately and simultaneously and become an lawless and uncharted dimension, called the heteroclite. Things are laid, placed, arranged in sites, and it is too difficult to find a common ground for them all. This concept of “ensemble” is not unlike Benjamin’s “allegory” in the sense of assemblage, but unlike the allegory, the heteroclite resists unitary meaning. In contrast to a utopia, an untroubled region, the heterotopia is disturbing and impossible to name, thus contesting the possibility of language.

What Magritte presented to the viewer was an unreconcilable contradiction that rendered language dysfunctional. Both Foucault and Magritte critique language and agree with Ferdinand de Saussure that signs are arbitrary, circumstantial, and conventional. In contrast to classical painting’s attempt to identify scenes or images with models that inspired them, Magritte sought to banish resemblance by employing familiar images whose recognizabiltiy would be subverted. He explored the secret linguistic element in painting: “This painted image is that thing,” by employing familiar images whose recognizability is to be subverted. Taking up the anti-linguistic program of Modernism, that painting is nothing other than itself, Magritte used literalism to undermine itself. He played with “resemblance” as the primary reference that prescribes and classes: copies on the basis of mimetic relation to itself and “similitude” in which there is on reference, the anchor is gone. With similitude, the relations are lateral with infinite and reversible relation of “the similar to the similar” in an endless series of repetitions. The concepts of resemblance and similitude are familiar to those who have read The Order of Things and belong to the old episteme.

According to Foucault, what renders Magritte’s figure “strange” is not the contradiction between the image (the pipe) and the text (“This is not a pipe”) because a contradiction can exist only between two statements. In La trahison des images, there is only one statement and one simple demonstration but, through our own habits of reading, we assume a “natural” connecting of text and drawing. Foucault attempted to correct this misreading. Rather than reading the painting as a sign with its label, Foucault asserted that Magritte’s painting was a calligram, “secretly constructed and carefully unraveled.” According to Foucault, a calligram augments the alphabet and repeats without the aide of rhetoric, trapping things in a double cipher. The calligram brings text and shape as close together as possible: the lines delineate the form of an object and arrange sequences of letters, lodging statements in the space of a shape. A calligram makes the text say what the drawing represents and distributes writing in a non-neutral space. The ideogram is forced to arrange itself according to the laws of simultaneous form. Thus La trahison des images is tautological in opposition to rhetorical, which is allegorical, rich, and full. The calligram uses letters to signify both as linear elements arranged in space and as signs in a unique chain of sound. The calligram effaces the showing and naming opposition and creates a trap of double function: the signs invoke the very thing of which they speak.

As Foucault explained, Magritte’s painting recovered the functions of the calligram in order to pervert them. He disturbed the traditional bonds of language and image and the text resumed its place–below the image, supporting, the task of “naming” and becoming “the legend.” Meanwhile the form is released and re-ascends, floating anew in its natural silence. Magritte returned to a simple correspondence of image to legend or of word to thing. He names what does not need to be named and denies that the object is what it is. In redistributing the text and image in space, each retains its place and the text affirms its own autonomy. “This” refers to the drawing or to the statement and the text and image have no common ground. Nowhere is there a pipe and negations multiply themselves. The exteriority of written and figurative elements are symbolized by non-relations between the painting and the title. A gulf prevents the reader/viewer at the same time, because Magritte named his painting in order to draw attention to the very act of naming. According to Magritte,

Between words and objects one can create new relations and specify characteristics of language and objects generally ignored in everyday life…Sometimes the name of an object takes the place of an image. A word can take the place of an object in reality. An image can take the place of a word in a proposition.

Words are not bound directly to other pictorial elements, and, as Foucault wrote,“Magritte allows the old space of representation to rule, but only the surface, no more than a polished stone, bearing words and shapes: beneath, nothing. It is a gravestone.” By the end of the Seventies, Foucault and Barthes had brought together a number of ideas borrowed from their precursors and had extracted fragments for fuller examination. This pluralism in philosophical thought was exemplified by Magritte’s critique of Plato and the date of his death in 1967 marked the beginning of Postmodernism. The late works of Magritte coincide with American interest in the late works of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) as seen in the works of Jasper Johns. In False Start (1963), Johns, mockingly pointed different areas of color in the “style” of Abstract Expressionism” and then, using the universal style of the stenciled label, proceeded to (re)name all the colors. “Red” was stenciled in yellow floated on top of an area of blue paint. The Name and the Thing were disconnected, indicating Wittgenstein’s concern with pointing, the basis of the proposition. The proposition that “red is red” is undermined by disconnecting the expected link between the object and its label. The ultimate “point” of the exercise is that our “reality” is linguistic and rests upon our naïve belief that our words have an inherent meaning. Wittgenstein warned that meaning does not exist in and of itself but only “in the use,” a point that both Magritte and Foucault were making in other words and in other ways.

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Jacques Lacan: Historical Context

JACQUES-MARIE ÉMILE LACAN (1901 – 1981)

PART ONE: HISTORICAL CONTEXT

Among the most important philosophers of the post-war period was Jacques Lacan who lectured to a number of future Postmodern thinkers, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida, all of whom sat in on his famous lectures. A careful reading of his lectures, the Écrits, followed by a careful reading of the ideas of his students reveals traces of his thought in their writings. Lacan became more widely known in America through his appearance at the now famous 1966 symposium at Johns Hopkins University. This symposium introduced European post-Freudian thinking, Post-Structuralism and Deconstruction to an American audience, but, because these lectures would not be published in English until 1970, it would be years before these seminal discussions would take root in the United States. In fact his last essays, concerning his now controversial interpretations of women and their position in psychological theory, were not translated until 1998.

Jacques Lacan was first and foremost the fulcrum through which many impulses of Postmodern thought were injected into a wide range of disciplines, from literary theory to feminist theory to Marxist theory to philosophy. The scatter-shot effect of his texts indicate the very complex construction of his widely influential books and lectures. One of the themes in Elizabeth Roudinesco elegantly laid out in her 1990 book, Jacques Lacan & Co: A History of Psychoanalysis in France, 1925-1985, Lacan’s entire career was certainly self-invention and re-invention and his re-take on Freudian theory was a bricolage re-construction.Born of a middle class Parisian family whose ordinariness he would take pains to hide, Lacan was, in many ways, a reinvented man by the time he entered into the still new medical field of psychoanalysis. For one seminal year, 1928-1929, he interned at the Infirmary for the Insane of the Police Prefecture under the colorful Gaëtan Gatian de Clérambault, a specialist in “erotomania,” paranoia, and the draping and knotting of cloth. Clérambault held dramatic sway over his pupils and, believing in the power of the “gaze,” observed his patients, who were never allowed to talk with him, and based his conclusions on his observations.

It is important to understand that when Lacan began his independent professional career, he was part of a purely French take on psychoanalysis: from Clérambault’s reworking of Freud’s teacher, Jean-Martin Charcot to his own reworking of Clérambault (who accused his pupil of plagiarism). But this French foundation would be infused with more than a touch of alien German-ness. It is through his interest in Dada and then Surrealism that Lacan discovered the writings of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) in the early 1930s, but, once again, it is important to note that Lacan came to Freud through late Surrealism and ideas of Salvador Dali (1904-1989) on paranoia. For Dali, seeing one thing and thinking (due to paranoia) that it is something else–different and threatening–is the equivalent of living in an hallucination.

Although Freud was alive and quite accessible in the 1930s, Lacan and the second generation of French psychoanalysts knew Freud through reading his books, and it was through Freud’s writings that Lacan learned of the “talking cure” or the “couch,” and of the importance of language. Clearly, the young doctor could see, first, that his field was changing and that with the demise of the teachers, the students could now assume leadership positions and that, second, there was nothing and no one preventing him from stepping forward with new ideas. Through sheer will and force of personality, Jacques Lacan took the lead in re-creating a new version of psychoanalysis. Lacan was not and would never be an originator or an innovator, instead his talent lay in a penchant for theatrical delivery and in drawing together numerous concepts, already in circulation and recombining and reinventing the already invented. His method as a teacher was to teach (dramatically) the work of others, especially Freud, filtered through his own re-interpretations, which then, in and of themselves, could become a distinct body of work in its own right.

If the first step towards a re-thinking of psychoanalysis was Freud, then the second step was Georg Hegel (1770-1831), but Lacan would absorb a very particular re-interpreting of Hegel. As a member of the generation of 1930, Lacan was influenced by Hegelian thought transmitted to the French through the 1933-34 lectures of Alexandre Kojève from 1933 to 1939. Although other work was discovered posthumously, Kojève’s most famous book was his Introduction à la lecture de Hegel (published in French in 1947 and in English in 1968). Because this book is a compendium of a series of lectures, the text is a bit oddly segmented but it presents the ideas of Georg Hegel in a succinct and comprehensible fashion. As philosopher Michael Roth recounted in his 1985 article, “A Problem of Recognition: Alexandre Kojève and the End of History,”

The center of Kojeve’s oeuvre is, and will remain, however, his book on Hegel. This interpretation, a collection of notes and texts assembled by Raymond Queneau, is gleaned from a seminar which was a hothouse for intellec- tual development: Raymond Aron, Georges Bataille, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Eric Weil, Aron Gurwitsch, Gaston Fessard, Alexandre Koyré, Queneau, Andre Breton, and Jacques Lacan were among the auditors.

Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit introduced the notion of a dialectic between the self and the other and/or the master/slave. As Alexandre Kojève pointed out in his lectures, the desire for recognition, which leads to self-consciousness, is linked to the desire for the Other. As Michael Roth explained, “Human desire, properly so-called, has as its object another desire and not another thing.” What is significant about Kojève’s re-reading of Hegel through a Marxist filter is that by placing “desire” at the center of Hegelian thought, Kojève moved the desire for recognition (self-consciousness) out of Hegel’s theological (transcendental) time to Marx’s material time (class struggle as the basis for history itself). Then he substituted Hegelian being with the Being of Heidegger, in which Being or Dasein is achieved through the anticipation of death. So what beings in desire ends in death, all enfolded in a life lived in real historical time. Desire creates history and even time itself.

Lacan would take up the psychological implications of the One/the Other and sexualize the alterity or otherness between the self and the other. For Lacan, following Kojève, the emergence of individuality would revolve around Desire, which is always directed toward an/Other Desire, which is always deferred. Lacan also re-cast Marxism in that economy became a way to explain an “exchange” system of loss and gain, now connected to the ideas of Sigmund Freud. Unlike Freud, an original thinker, who labored alone, Lacan re-examined Freud by filtering him through other disciplines–anthropology (Claude Lévi-Strauss) and semiotics (Ferdinand de Saussure)–and focused on what is particularly human about the human mind. Rejecting Freud’s biology, which insisted that the workings of the mind was determined by the body, or to put it more bluntly, “anatomy is destiny,” and borrowing from Saussure, Lacan substituted nature for culture and biology for anthropology and sociology and claimed that the unconscious was structured by language, in other words by culture. As Lacan stated in Seminar XX:

…I am staying within the bounds of what I put forward when I say that the unconscious is structured like a language. I say like so as not to say – and I come back to this all the time – that the unconscious is structured by a language. The unconscious is structured like the assemblages in question in set theory, which are like letters…

Although Lacan had already presented his idea of the “mirror stage” in 1936, he did not announce his fabled Return to Freud until November 7, 1955 with the aim of dislodging the ego from its position of ascendancy and of dethroning consciousness. As Terry Gamel pointed out in his “Summary of Lacan’s ‘The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,'” Lacan posited that the “mirror stage,” or how a child comes to literally “see” herself as a separate (conscious) individual, evolved through (trace of Dali’s ideas) “paranoiac knowledge,” or how we make sense of the world. By the 1950s, the interest in Freudian studies had declined in France. There was no psychoanalytic study in France until 1926 (remember Surrealism emerged a few years earlier), during the war, Freud had been rejected for being “German,” and many (Jewish) practitioners of Freud’s ideas were killed during World War II.

The post-war scene in French philosophy was dominated by Existentialism and its notion of the self as an actor with individual autonomy. But in 1963, Louis Althusser (1918-1990) revived Lacan by inviting him to bring his famous seminars to École normale supérièure from Sainte Anne Hôpital. At the hospital, Lacan had performed in the amphitheater from 1954 to 1964 as a spellbinding and prophetic leader: the kind of scholarly superstar that is unique to France. He claimed he made the unconscious manifest through his self-conscious style of performance. In keeping with what would later be called “postmodernism,” Lacan radically critiqued psychoanalysis by re-reading Freudian theory. In keeping with his linguistic take on Freud, Lacan asserted that the whole truth could never be spoken and that any perceived totality was imaginary.

Once he moved to the École, Lacan’s circle quickly expanded and included Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009), author of Structural Anthropology to whom he owed some of his thinking on the role of culture in shaping the human mind. In addition, both Althusser and Lacan were re-thinking the philosophy of Karl Marx without reference to Hegel’s absolute and Freud without reference to the unified self/ego, respectively. But, as Elizabeth Roudinesco stated, the events of May 1968 transformed psychoanalysis from an academic enterprise to a psychoanalytic culture that was dedicated to social and political issues and to social criticism. These events of 1968 created a political community that changed the French intellectual psyche. In comparing Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980) to those who came after him, one could now say he was the last Enlightenment philosopher and perhaps the last Modernist philosopher after Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), and that Lacan was the first Postmodernist in that he was one of the early re-writers and re-thinkers who also used bricolage to re-assemble a new take on old ideas.

To the generation of 1968, the theory of language as a discours engagé, meaning politically committed writings, had to be reappraised. Although a political uprising had begun spontaneously, the end result was a reassertion of power under an autocratic and dictatorial Charles de Gaulle. Discouraged by the collapse of oppositional forces—labor and students—French intellectuals began to manifest their refutation of the “classical” tradition, which stressed clarity above all, in French literature by deliberately writing with oblique political gestures. In other words, the new philosophers position themselves in a postmodern position of critique by re-reading and re-writing or re-newing the philosophy of Others, or to put it still another way, they overthrow or overwrite their precursors. One of the best books on this transformation of French thought, The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution was written by Richard Wolin, who explained,

As a result of the May events and their contact with the Maoists, French intellectuals bade adieu to the Jacobin-Leninsit authoritarian political model of which they had formerly been so enamored. They ceased behaving like mandarins and internalized the virtues of democratic humility. In May’s aftermath, they attuned themselves to new forms and modes of social struggle. Their post-May awareness concerning the injustices of top-down politics alerted them to the virtues of “society” and political struggle from below. In consequence French intellectual life was transformed. The Sartrean model of the engaged intellectual was upheld, but its content was totally reconfigured. Insights into the debilities of political vanguardism impelled French writers and thinkers to reevaluate the Dreyfusard legacy of the universal intellectual: the intellectual who shames the holds of power by flaunting timeless moral truths.

At all costs, totalitarian thinking or grand narratives must be avoided. The experiences of 1968 also explain the commingling of philosophy and other disciplines, especially with the arts. As with the Frankfurt School, political events brought about an interdisciplinary approach within philosophy. Lacan’s Seminar of 1969 reflected not only his long apprenticeship and absorption of multiple strains of pre-war intellectualism but also his post-war reactions to political upheaval. First, he stated his objections to the idea of totalization of knowledge and began a critique of the Hegelian idea of the Master, by pointing to what he termed the “hysteric” discourse of Socrates. Lacan blended the dialectic between question and answer with the circular and symbiotic relationship between the doctor and patient. The presumed role of the pupil/subordinate/hysteric who asked questions of the Master, demanding the Master’s answer, only brings the master and the hysteric into a symbiosis or a symbiotic or mutually dependent relationship. This entangled and self-enclosed discourse of universality is the discourse of the Master, implying a mastery of all disciplines.

The Master reinforces his Mastery through mystification of ideas and deliberate obscurantism of intellectual thought, which produces the non-mastery of the subordinated and bewildered students. In his rejection of Socratic thought and method, Lacan was echoing Friedrich Nietzsche (184401900), who saw Socrates as destroying the balance between Apollo (the rational) and Dionysius (the irrational). In his dialogues with his pupils, Socrates attempted to upset this balance to make logic (the rational) the primal mode of thought which should dominate (like the Master) the workings of the mind. It is not clear how Lacan, the “master” performer surrounded by students and disciples, avoided the position of the Master and the consequent mutual identification in his turn, but he was part of the post 1968 reconfiguration on the part of French intellectuals who took a subversive turn. The goal of the Postmodern enterprise was to question prevailing wisdom by critiquing the already said.

In the decades after this death, his possible upending of authority attracted a new commentary on and a new critique of Lacan himself by a younger generation. A more contemporary reading of Lacan would find a bias towards Eurocentrism and a phallocentric (male) perspective on the world. Although the “culture” of Freud and Lacan was a white European male culture, Post-colonial writers have found Lacan’s notions of Desire to be an important aspect of the colonial question of the relationship between the One and the Other. Since the seventies, many feminists debated both of these writers, while other feminists did not bother to do battle on a terrain that does not include women. Re-reading Jacques Lacan in the 21st century is a challenging enterprise and calls into question the relevance of Postmodern thinking to a world that has so clearly moved beyond the culture that formed Lacan. For women and for people of color, for people who are not heterosexual, Lacan is at best anachronistic. Yet it cannot be denied that the relevance of Lacan lies in his insights into how relationships of power shape the consciousness, bending it towards either dominance or submission: concepts that have profound political implications today.

The next four posts will discuss Lacan’s re-reading and re-writing of Sigmund Freud.

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

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Abstract Expressionism: Redefining Art, Part One

How Abstract Expressionism Re-Defined Painting and Art:

Abstract Expressionism and Content

To work as an artist in New York City during the 1940s was to work in what the Chinese curse called “interesting times. The Abstract Expressionist artists of the New York School struggled to make art during a catastrophic world war while the entire nation was engulfed in the effort to preserve and protect democracy. For the past decade, during the 1930s, art had been socially conscious and politically activist and its illustrative approach was well-suited to conveying informative content to the public in the Depression period. The efforts of the government to bringing art to the people through New Deal public mural projects elevated the overall national awareness of art and these local murals focused on the task of recounting history through visual culture. But the events of the Second World War implied that art might have a new role–to express a collective consciousness that transcended any one nation or any one location.

As the result of unprecedented world events, a war for civilization itself, art now had a serious role and a high purpose. Likewise the artist had a serious role and a high purpose. The social responsibility of the artist was nothing less than the renewal of art itself. The spiritual responsibility of the artist was to translate the felt experience of his or her time into art. The Abstract Expressionist artists lived through the Depression and the Second World War. For them, content and the aesthetic values of art were important, as opposed to the literary component or the illustrative role of representational traditional art so beloved by Americans. Their social consciousness raised by the Depression, these artists asked, not just what should I paint but more importantly why should I paint? What was the existential reason for making art? Moving away from the American Regionalists and from the Social Realists, these new painters turned from representation and looked towards a more ancient and more archaic form of human expression: myth. They scorned the Modernism that had become an academic European art for a collective experience in atavistic symbol making, using the “primitive” and the “primeval” as sources of inspiration for a new art in newly terrible times. The response of a group of artists in New York City to the perceived crisis in subject matter was a new way of making art and new way of seeing a painting.

Abstract Expressionism re-defined subject matter in that time of a crisis in subject matter–how to make an art that expressed an era in crisis? Art had been caught between specific content—representational art and and art that had no content but formal content–totally abstract art. But as Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko stated in 1943, “There is no such thing as good painting about nothing. We assert that the subject matter is crucial…” The Abstract Expressionist artists were concerned with ancient myth and primitive art as way to question an insular European tradition and to show their opposition to Social Realism and American Scene painting. Seeking a profundity that would respond to the shift in mood, Newman and Rothko were particularly interested in the tradition of tragedy from ancient Greek myth. The role that myth played in the painting of Jackson Pollock has been debated and discussed among art historians for decades, and it seems likely that the artist picked up on the zeitgeist and used mythic themes in his art of the last thirties and early forties, such as She Wolf (1943). That said, Pollock dropped the crutch of myth as his subject matter and moved towards exploring new ways of making the act of painting itself the content of painting. Painting was seen as the elimination of past traditions to clear the way to return to primal means of expression. The artists, alienated from society, attempted to devise a new language for mythic thought, a language that was non-discursive, expressing the deep truth of myth.

Indeed, the Abstract Expressionist artists also had to establish their own territory in New York City. Pollock is often given the credit for a “breakthrough,” as Willem de Kooning expressed it, or a breaking away from European art. But, for the New York artists, the process of discarding a tradition had to begin with the reexamination of Modernism. To counter the American Modernism of the aging Alfred Stieglitz and his venerable circle of painters, who tended to be representational and local, the younger artists looked to the waning styles and movements of European art to see what they could salvage. The American artists were less interested in the theories and philosophies of Dada and Surrealism and were more interested in the possibilities of Dada’s use of chance and displacement and in the neutral and innovative practices of automatism they learned from Surrealism. The task was to wrest chance from the idea of “anti-art” and to appropriate automatic writing to the practice of painting, as seen in the work of Joan Miró, in order to apply a hybrid mix of old ideas to make new art.

For Mark Rothko, the goal was to eliminate figuration and to retain his vertical zones of stacked content. During the 1940s, Rothko shunned the dream content of Surrealism in favor of multiple floating areas of color roaming a raw canvas. For some artists, such as Jackson Pollock, the work of art was understood as a “duration,” supported by the “directness” of art. Art was an act, a process that proceeded over a period of contemplative thought and active making. Derived from the “automatic writing” of Surrealism, Pollock’s “drip technique” shifted the content of art from an illustrated scene to an abstract kinetic process captured on his unprimed canvas and sealed beneath skeins of paint. For other artists, such as Robert Motherwell, abstraction could be used to express the lingering sorrow over the failure of the Spanish Republic. The hanging pendulous black figures slung against the raw blank white background of Motherwell’s Elegy series evoke the black and white ethos of an era of great sadness and loss. After not painting for years, Barnett Newman took up art again and began a remarkable and long-lasting series of “zip” paintings, in which, acting like a god, he cleaved the whole of his canvas into two separable worlds of color. Onement I of 1948 is a statement of oneness and division made by a Holocaust survivor. “I hope that my painting has the impact of giving someone,” he stated, “as it did me, the feeling of his own totality, of his own separateness, of his own individuality.”

Each Abstract Expressionist artist had his or her own way of creating a unique expression for the post-war era. Abstract Expressionism re-defined the purpose of art from Social Consciousness to Human Consciousness, stressing the universal instead of particular. The artistic and conceptual gulf between illustrative nationalist art practiced by Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood and art that communicated through the collective unconscious of Jungian myth is vast and deep and unbridgeable. Abstract Expressionism marks the transition from lack of subject matter—abstract art—to abstract content with “meaning” as concept. Meaning is to be Felt rather than spoken or directly explained. Art as Experience became one of the defining characteristics of Abstract Expressionism.

Art must be a response to modern life and thus, in order to move forward into the next half of the broken century, the New York School rejected the exhausted European tradition of Modernism in favor of a tradition more universal. Willem de Kooning whose birth city of Rotterdam was pulverized by Nazi bombers renounced figuration and began creating layers of shards of crashed paint, enhanced by painful attempts at rudimentary drawing. The Dutch artist alternatively built and destroyed, constructed and excavated a series of mid-sized paintings that he was notoriously reluctant to finish as if no reconstruction would suffice. As can be seen, the shift into totally abstract art brought formal elements and formal innovation to the fore as artistic statements to create a new way for art to communicate on a more profound level. Adolph Gottlieb was deeply concerned with the state of the post-war world. As a fortunate individual who had survived the Holocaust by dint of being an American, he spoke eloquently of the times he lived in:

The role of the artist, of course, has always been that of image-maker. Different times require different images. Today when our aspirations have been reduced to a desperate attempt to escape from evil, and times are out of joint, our obsessive, subterranean and pictographic images are the expression of the neurosis which is our reality. To my mind certain so-called abstraction is not abstraction at all. On the contrary, it is the realism of our time.

The search for the atavistic roots of art led to a return to an almost Ur manner of painting. The painters ended traditional European play between line and color by combining the two, thereby eliminating relationships among elements as content, such as seen in Piet Mondrian and Kasimir Malevich. The act of painting was stripped down to its essence—marking the canvas and covering an expanse with colors. Once the idea of composition was pushed aside, Mark Rothko’s great fields of morphing colors obliterated the division between line and shape, implying a spreading atmosphere rather than a bounded easel painting. Franz Kline swept large swarths of black paint crashing into chunks of white paint in an expression of clash and combat so characteristic of the era of the warrior. What was left on the canvas was the artist’s experience—the marks of his making. He explained,

There is imagery. Symbolism is a difficult idea. I’m not a symbolist. In other words, these are painting experiences. I don’t decide in advance that am going to paint a definite experience, but in the act of painting, it becomes a genuine experience for me.

Over time, the mere mark of the artist, his touch, the slash of the loaded paint brush was the total content of the painting. The personality of the artist replaced figurative content and the cult of the artist replaced tragic meaning or universal truths. To critics, such as Harold Rosenberg, the physical action of the artists’ mark-making was sufficient in and of itself for the art to become an “act.” Rosenberg’s American Action Painters of 1952 recreated painting as an existential act, the sole means of existence in a world without God. A 1948 statement by Barnett Newman: “Terror can only exist if the forces of tragedy are unknown” was replaced by the idea that painting was revelation, a revelation of the artist. The critical shift, seen best in the formalist approach of Clement Greenberg, can be seen as a political neutralization of Abstract Expressionism, removing the artist’s personal convictions and replacing individual feeling with pigment in motion. Following the frightening hostility towards left-wing intellectuals during the MacCarthy era, Greenberg preferred and supported the (apparently) apolitical work of Pollock, and the anti-war messages of Gottlieb’s Blast and Burst series of the sixties were out of step with the increasing (Greenbergian) critical need to separate art from the conflicts of the Cold War.

By making the artist himself (women were usually not included in the ranks of the New York School) the content, Abstract Expressionism became more formal in its content and the very real need of many of the artists to come to grips with the tragedies of their century was covered over by a new discourse of “American triumphalism” over European Modernism. To come full circle, in 2009, the art historian Irving Sandler recently published his own reevaluation of his 1970 history of Abstract Expressionism, Abstract Expressionism and the American Experience: A Reevaluation. The period during which Abstract Expressionist artists were struggling with the problem of how to express an entirely unprecedented historical content was a complex one, fraught with political peril, roiled by critical rivalries, and marked by rival artistic camps. A balance between the intentions of the varied group of disparate artists and the need of historians to define movements can perhaps be reached, but before we can get to that point, we need to have a fuller view of the landscape.

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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

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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Surrealism and Freudian Theory

SURREALIST THEORY

The Marvelous Mind of Surrealism

In the Surrealist Manifesto of 1924, André Breton wrote,I believe in the future resolution of these two states — outwardly so contradictory — which are dream and reality, into a sort of absolute reality, a surreality, so to speak, I am aiming for its conquest, certain that I myself shall not attain it, but too indifferent to my death not to calculate the joys of such possession.” He continued, “For the time being, “my intention has been to see that justice was done to that hatred of the marvellous which rages in certain men, that ridicule under which they would like to crush it. Let us resolve, therefore: the Marvellous is always beautiful, everything marvellous is beautiful. Nothing but the Marvellous is beautiful.”

The question was how find this “superior reality,” how to get to the unconscious part of the mind, always guarded by the waking disciplined mind. Often with the aid of drugs or alcohol, Surrealists poets and writers would play games to bring the unconscious mind to the surface. They tried to write “automatically” to be free of the constraints of tradition in art and they drew exquisite corpses, cadaver exquise, or composite drawings to create new thoughts for the resulting figures that could not be imagined under ordinary circumstances. There is much in Surrealism that is manifestation of the exercise of free association from Sigmund Freud but there are visual precedents for the movement.

Artists had long used dreams, visions and their own inner reality as a source for making art. Gustave Moreau, a contemporary of Gustave Courbet, presented an alternative to the relentless realism of an age of materialism. At the turn of the century Edvard Munch expressed the ache of alienation and the fear of abandonment that would be so indicative of his time. Henri Rousseau, an amateur painter, unabashedly recreated his dreams and desires to the bemused admiration of his avant-garde peers. Odilon Redon imagined the eye as a great balloon, floating over a landscape like a giant surveillance camera. But the most significant influence was an Italian painter, Giorgio De Chirico whose strange paintings would be classified as pittura metafisica.

Although he returned to the “classical” in 1919, De Chirico was an early member of the cult of the Strange and the Marvelous. Based on the paintings he did from 1913 on, his method of conceiving of content seemed to resemble a practice of assemblage, a gathering together of unlikely elements. As if they had met on Lautréaumont’s dissecting table, de Chirico’s objects in Song of Love, 1914, come together and create a mystery. His paintings, like those of many artists who came after him, could be appropriated by Breton and enfolded into the theories of Surrealism.

Surrealist Theory was based on a simplistic understanding of the writings of Sigmund Freud recrafted for the use of poets and visual artists. Thanks to Surrealism, Freud became popularized by the 1930s and his impact upon the artists in Paris in the 1920s. For the artists, the mind or human psychology, could be a source of artistic inspiration. For Freud, the unconscious is structured like a language that cannot speak its name. Due to the rigors of socialization, primal desires are suppressed and base instincts are repressed. However, the mind has its own economy and that which has been buried must be expressed through displacement and transference, or through substitution. This part of the mind is doomed to indirectness but is compensated by a surplus of poetry and metaphors. The result is a transformation of the unreachable primal script into a metamorphosis, which collapses reality and dream.

The paintings of Salvador Dali, such as The Persistence of Memory (1931), are crafted with the precision and dedication of the Dutch still lives to which the artist paid homage. The dream becomes manifested in the flesh of the pigments and becomes more alive and intense and more memorable than reality which pales in comparison. While Dali asserted the dream, which would be translated by the viewer, René Magritte, a philosopher who painted, undermined perceived reality with word games and visual puns. Personal Values (1952) is especially rich in conceptual play: an indoor room is crowded with outdoor clouds surrounding a bed to scale but the bed is surmounted by an erect comb, seeing eye to eye with an empty glass standing in front of a to scale wardrobe with doors that mirror the clouds floating by in the blue sky and an unseen window. “Oriental” rugs overlap each other on the floor and serve as the resting place for a mid-sized pencil and an overlarge oval bar of soap. What brings all of these found objects together in this inverted room?

Like an undeveloped photograph, the contents of the mind are latent, speaking in a secret language that is wholly private and individual. Surrealism sought this secret language through the fixing of the dream images into works of art. But there was another element of Freudian theory that found its way into Surrealist art, the concept of automatic writing: “…the essential discovery of Surrealism is that, without preconceived intention, the pen that flows in order to write and the pencil that runs in order to draw or spin an infinitely precious substance.” Resembling doodling or idle scribbling, écriture automatique was a loosening of control of conscious thought on the part of the poet. For the painter, such as Joan Miró, or the assemblage artist, such as Max Ernst, the result was a combination of free association and stream of consciousness “writing.”

Despite the implication of giving free rein to the unconscious mind, the artists who “practiced” automatic writing were actually quite careful and selective in the use of shapes (Miró) and the object (Ernst). Certainly Miró was inspired by the possibility of creating free-form biomorhphic shapes but he developed these shapes into a coherent composition that hovered between a dream world and an abstract composition. In Europe After the Rain (1940-41), Max Ernst may have practiced frottage but he used his rubbings to good effect and aided and prodded the metamorphosis into the recognizable. Nevertheless, the viewer is disoriented. The collapse of distinctions between a finished work and a work in process, between the familiar and the strange, between the fragment and the macrocosm forbids a purchase on reality and creates a mirroring or doubling.

By basing its raison d’être upon a combination of elements of Dada and Freudian theory, Surrealism repudiated the traditional idea of aesthetics or the connection between art and beauty. Stating that “Beauty will be convulsive or not at all,” Breton rewrote the definition of “beauty.” He echoed Baudelaire who declared that the beautiful is always “strange.” The Surrealist beauty is a “convulsive beauty,” a beauty born of the non-form that reforms itself. This “informe” produces an unexpected misrecognition or an inability to recognize as the image is torn from its intended context. All that is left is the “savage state” of the eye, giving primacy to the powers of the visual: the viewer is left with only what s/he sees in an almost primal fashion. The unformed or uninformed sight convulses itself into a condition of revelation as the underlying workings of the mind are revealed through the Surrealist work of art.

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Surrealism in Context

THE MAKING OF SURREALISM

SURREALISM

1924 – 1939

Wounded and home from the Front, the dying poet, Guillaume Apollinaire, went to a play by Diaghilev, Parade. The sets had been made by his good friend, Pablo Picasso, the music was by Erik Satie, the by Leonide Massine, and the scenario was written by Jean Cocteau. The poet had written the program notes for the play which opened on May 18,1917. Apollinaire had been using a new term, “surrealism,” one that he had coined in preference to “supernaturalisme” for several years. According to Robert Mazzocco and Cecily Mackworth, the poet had already decided on his term months before he saw the play: “After thinking over the question carefully, I prefer to adopt the word Surréalisme, rather than the Surnaturalisme I used at first. Surréalisme does not yet exist in the dictionary and will be easier to manipulate than Surnaturalisme, which has already been used by philosophers.” After the play, the poet was ready to unleash his new term, which would be picked up by his friend André Breton.

Surrealism was a movement born out of the remains of madness and terror. After the Great War, the writings of an obscure psychologist in Vienna, Sigmund Freud suddenly seemed relevant. Soldiers had experienced what was called “shell shock” in the early twentieth century ever since war was invented. The Great War produced such numbers of afflicted soldiers that no excuses of cowardice or treason, no amount of executions could make vanish the effects of war on the mind. As a wartime nurse, André Breton had observed the power of the wounded mind over the helpless body and in 1921, he visited Freud to learn more of what the doctor called the “unconscious mind.”

For Freud, dreams were “the royal road to the unconscious,” meaning the mind was capable of communicating at various levels, and perhaps the least of which was the conscious level. The deeper buried layer of the mind “spoke” in codes, whether linguistic or visual, and these clues had to be decoded by the psychologist who could translate the obscured messages. What he learned from Freud gestated in the mind of Breton and his fellow poets while he joined forces with the Dada artists. Dada, in Paris, was not nearly as cohesive as the Berlin group and for a poet with different ideas, wartime Dada was not the mindset needed for a new decade.

For an artist and poet, this subterranean mind, was a site of untapped potential for art making. The poets of Littérature, founded 1919, André Breton, Louis Aragon, Philippe Soupault, Jean Paulhan, Paul Eluard, Georges Robemont-Dessaignes, were more and more out of sympathy with Dada. Dada wanted to sweep the slate clean to create a tabula rasa, but the teachings of Freud stated that there could be no such thing. The mind, far from being erasable, was like an archaeological dig, buried under layers and layers of repressed memories. By of spring, 1920, Dada had outlived is usefulness as an anti-war movement, and Littérature was independent of its parent and was moving towards “surrealism.” In this same year, Breton and Souplault experimented with automatic writing or écriture automatique, published as “Les Champs magnétiques” in Littérataire. It was time to move on.

Breton announced, “Leave everything. Leave Dada. Leave your wife. Leave your mistress. Leave your hopes and fears. Leave your children in the woods. Leave the substance for the shadow. Leave your easy life, leave what you are given for the future. Set off on the road.” André Breton believed that “If there is to be an attempt at subversion, it will have to be sought on terrain other than Dada.” For Breton rebuilding the future of art into something positive was the goal of post-war artists. For the next three years, Breton attempted a “dialectical transformation” of Dada into Surrealism. With the stated goal of Surrealism being the polar opposite of Dada, Surrealism looked back to the fin-de-siecle period at the poetry of the Romantic-Symbolist tradition, reviving the deeply nuanced subjectivism of Symbolist poetry.

With its adherence to Symbolism, one could question if Surrealism was regressively looking back but one could also argue that Symbolism was a poetic movement unfulfilled and deferred by the Great War. Symbolism was not “expressionistic” in the way that the German movements were personal and emotional. A largely literary movement, Symbolism demanded reader response by using language as a raw material to evoke rather than describe, to suggest rather than create atmosphere or mood. The founding poet of Symbolism, Charles Baudelaire wrote, “Nature is a temple in which living pillars/ Sometimes give voice to confused words;/ Man passes there through forests of symbols/ Which look at him with understanding eyes.”

In this poem, Correspondences, Baudelaire indicated that communication was symbolic and that one acquired a deeper and denser understanding through symbols, so much richer than mere words. Word should be assembled to indicate something beyond. A contemporary of Baudelaire, Isidore Ducasse was also fascinated with the romance of evil in Maldoror but, unlike Baudelaire, Ducasse lived and died—less than then years after Baudelaire—in relative obscurity. Revived by Breton known under his nom de plume, Comte de Lautréamont, the novelist was best know for his signature phrase and the slogan of Surrealism: “As beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella!”

While Symbolism sought to activate the mind of the reader through suggestive language, for Surrealism, the unconscious mind was an important source for art that could not be imagined by the conscious mind. By 1924, André Breton was ready to release the Surrealist Manifesto. This manifesto both nodded to its predecessor, Dada, and laid out its distinct philosophy, based on Freudian ideas. “If the depths of our minds conceal strange forces capable of augmenting or conquering those on the surface, it is in our greatest interest to capture them; first to capture them and later to submit them, should the occasion arise, to the control of reason,” Breton wrote.

The phrase, “control of reason” separated Dada from Surrealism. Breton concluded his manifesto by giving the reader two definitions of Surrealism, first as a word: “Pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, either verbally or in writing, the true function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations,” and next as a philosophy: “Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of association heretofore neglected, in the omnipotence of the dream, and in the disinterested play of thought. It leads to the permanent destruction of all other psychic mechanisms and to its substitution for them in the solution of the principal problems of life.”

According to Breton, the question of the meaning of life should be changed from the expressionist solipsistic, “Who am I?” to “Whom shall I haunt?” While Dada was a political and social art of anger and social protest, Surrealism was concerned with art as a means of expressing the buried or as an instrument of self-discovery, not as an end in itself. Surrealism, then, put to itself a task and a purpose. Although placed within the ranks of the avant-garde, Surrealism should not be relegated to art-for-art’s-sake, for this movement had a job and this mission was to heal the torn fabric of society through private introspection.

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Comparison of Dada and Surrealism

DADA AND SURREALISM

1916-1920

1924-1939

Although Surrealism supposedly grew out of or outgrew Dada in Paris, the two movements come from very different time periods and cultural contexts. Dada was a wartime movement, founded in the midst of an international slaughter of young men, led by a deluded and incompetent class of elites. Although the Dada artists advertised themselves as being “anti-art,” the exiles in Zurich were against traditional art and its vaunted ideals. Far from being opposed to the basic idea of art, the Dada artists strove to find new ways to make new art in a new ways.

Being deliberately anti-authoritarian, Dada could not, by definition, have leaders. The movement had spokespersons but no one took a position of guidance. Aside from philosophy, Dada artists scattered across Europe after the Great War ended. None of the many centers of Dada had a leader and Dada, perhaps as a result, dissolved in a few years into other movements. Surrealism had a leader, indeed, a “Pope,” André Breton. It was possible for Surrealism to be led simply because the group was self-contained in Paris. Breton was somewhat iron-fisted for a leader of an avant-garde movement, expelling members who displeased him, but he held the group together for twenty years, an astonishing longevity.

The lack of deference to commanders of any kind on the part of Dada came directly out of a world un-made by the Great War. As Robert L. Herbert pointed out in “The Arrival of the Machine: Modernist Art in Europe,” the Great War brought about a belated acceptance of modern technology. After this war, the artists reacted to machines as benign and beneficent. Le Corbusier called the home “a machine for living.” But Dada’s swerve to impersonal means of making art could be linked to the way in which impersonal machines were killing young people at random. Chance and randomness decided the fate of civilians and soldiers alike—all were at the mercy of a cultural clash between Old World notions of heroism and New World technology. There is a defiance and anger to Dada practices that links the artists and their attitudes to the War.

Surrealism, on the other hand, emerged in a decade of peace and prosperity. The wounds left behind by the War were either ignored—as in the neglect of the surviving veterans—or celebrated—as in the erections of many memorials. Surrealism is essentially a cerebral retreat of survivors who do not want to look back. The Surrealist poets, writers, and visual artists stage an psychological retreat from reality, either past or present, and seek what the late poet, Guillaume Apollinaire, called “sur-reality,” or a realism outside and beyond perceived reality. The regressive nature of Surrealism could be understood as healing and reconstructive, replacing an aggressive and public voice with a private exploration into the recesses of the unconscious. Dada was inherently reality-based and overtly political. Surrealism, on the other hand, shifted away from an oppositional stance towards a more theoretical position.

The extent to which the Surrealist artists understood the theories of Sigmund Freud is debatable but their interest in Freud should be distinguished from Dada’s anti-rational stance. Although Surrealism supposedly celebrated the irrational, their ideas were based upon Freud’s very rational model of the human mind, bisected into the conscious and the unconscious mind and mapped into the id, the ego, and the superego. Surrealism also rejected the Dada disgust with self-indulgent expressionism but returning to individual vision, but the site of this vision was the untapped unconscious mind. In contrast to the deliberately disruptive and antagonistic tactics of the Dada artists, the Surrealists sought what they called “the Marvelous,” or that magically unexpected encounter when the ordinary suddenly became extraordinary.

Dada and Surrealism were both movements of writers and poets, with visual artists as being part of the larger intellectual group, but in Surrealism the artists were somewhat less innovative than those in the Dada movement. Paul Delvaux and Salvador Dali and René Magritte all painted in a very traditional manner, using old-fashioned techniques and subverting realism by painting dreams as if they were real. That said, both movements work with Chance. Dada’s use of chance was radical, a complete giving over of the artist to the oxymoronic “laws” of happenstance. Whether it is throwing pieces of paper to (not)create a collage by chance or assembling random word and reconvening them as poetry, Dada artists were anarchic when it came to giving up the creative thought process for process itself. In contrast, Surrealist artists deployed a variety of games, from automatic writing or the exquisite corpse, to approach chance from another position.

The Surrealist poets and artists sought a new way of writing “automatically,” without conscious control and a new way of finding unexpected images or ideas that would occur with collective group contributions. One could use the term “objective chance” to characterize and distinguish Surrealism because these artists use the already there, the already seen and then de-familiarizes the familiar through juxtaposition and metamorphosis. Note that the Dada photomontage may have used the technique of putting one randomly found image next to another, but the intent was to undermine meaning. Surrealism seeks new meaning, another meaning, an unexpected meaning, a sur-real meaning, but always, Surrealism wants live to mean something. And here it the crucial difference between Dada and Surrealism. For Dada, life has no meaning, no reason, no purpose, and no logic. For Surrealism, life has meaning; one has to find its logic by unlocking visual and verbal codes secreted in the chambers of the unconscious mind where one finds Freud’s “uncanny.”

The Found Object, or the oject trouvé, was the special domain of Marcel Duchamp who was preceded the Dada artists in his rejection of traditional art. Duchamp’s appropriation of anonymous factory made items was narrow and programmatic to his specific intentions, but the Surrealists were more open to the found object. Like Duchamp, the Surrealists bent the concept of a supposedly ordinary item to their own purposes, which was the search for the “Marvelous.” For Duchamp, the found object was “encountered” randomly and viewed with detachment and indifference, but for the Surrealists, the found object was the object of passion. Indeed, the object was poetic; implying a metaphor, indicating the item in question meant more or something else—-“the Marvelous.”

Duchamp’s rigorous intellectualism was hermetic but because of the theory of the “talking cure” based on hearing clues and reading codes, Surrealism expected audience participation. Duchamp himself had no aesthetic intentions, even when he “assisted” or “rectified” his Readymades, but the Surrealists returned to the aestheticism of art, making desirous and desiring works to be looked at and into. Although inherently conservative, Surrealism dominated the Parisian art scene until the next war broke out, scattering the already dated movement to distant shores where, like Dada, Surrealism would find a different and new destiny. As André Breton said, “Surrealism existed before me, and I firmly believe it will survive me.”

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

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