World War I was the first war that used widespread barbaric techniques, like machine guns and chemical weapons, which killed many people at once. It was a devastating blow for an entire generation; thousands of young men were lost in this war. This overwhelming loss led to many people seeing the horrors of war, and many groups started to protest violence.
One of these groups was an artistic movement called Dada, or Dadaism. This was an international movement that involved visual art, literature, and philosophical/political thought as well. The movement began in Switzerland, a neutral country in the war; this provided a safer space for a protesting group. Dada was more a movement of principles and ideas, not formal elements like some of the other artistic movements we have studied. There aren’t many shared or easily recognizable formal characteristics of Dada art; instead, it is all rooted in shared ideas about violence, morality, capitalism, etc. Marcel Duchamp, a pioneer of the Dada movement, coined the term “anti-art” to describe some of the work of the Dada movement.
The Dada movement began during/after World War I, and the term “Dada” was being used by 1915. It was a cohesive European artistic movement until about 1920, and was a concrete movement in the United States from about 1915-1923. Although protest against violence and war began the movement, Dada art also explored themes of playfulness, silliness, wordplay, and even childlike humor. Dada also dabbled in the absurd, and in nihilism.
Image: Raoul Hausmann, Mechanischer Kopf (Der Geist unserer Zeit) (Mechanical Head [The Spirit of Our Age]), 1920
Marcel Duchamp was an important figure of the Dada movement. He was known for works that pushed the boundaries of what “art” is in many capacities. Duchamp was often known for producing work that was lacking the serious, protesting tone of some European Dada artists (who focused more on the protest of violence and war). Duchamp, though, produced more nonsensical, nonlogical works that challenged the ideas of what art was and what art could be.
For example, one of his most well known works is a reproduction of Da Vinci’s masterpiece, Mona Lisa, upon which Duchamp has added a mustache and goatee. This work (see the image in your textbook), called L.H.O.O.Q., is a direct jab at the old canon of artistic expression and aesthetics. Instead, Duchamp is adding his own take to the old and pushing it into the new.
This work was also an example of one of Duchamp’s “Ready-Made” works. These were works made from found objects (undisguised objects or products that are not normally considered materials from which art is made, often because they already have a non-art function). Duchamp would put these found objects together or sometimes alter them, as with the Mona Lisa example. He would then present these objects as art. Some examples of these found objects include a snow shovel (for Duchamp’s work Prelude to a Broken Arm) or a drying rack for bottles (for the work The Bottle Rack). Some art historians conjecture that Duchamp actually created or produced some of his “found” objects, but others maintain that he did actually find them and rework them into artistic pieces.
The first of his Ready-Mades was actually a simple bicycle wheel installed in his studio (see image on slide). It was a bicycle fork with a front wheel mounted upside-down on a wooden stool. In 1913, he mounted the bicycle wheel upside down onto a wooden stool, spinning it occasionally just to watch it. Later he denied that its creation was purposeful, though it has come to be known as the first of his Ready-Mades. He said that he enjoyed watching the wheel spin, which was why he installed it. It wasn’t until he began making Ready-Mades in New York a couple years later that he decided the wheel was a Ready-Made. This was also the first example of a kinetic sculpture, which are three-dimensional sculptures and figures such as mobiles that move naturally or are machine operated. The moving parts are usually powered by wind, a motor or the observer. So for Duchamp, even a simple bicycle wheel had artistic power, and it was an example of the Dada tendency to break the boundaries of what was “art” and what wasn’t.
The most controversial Ready-Made produced by Duchamp was a piece called Fountain. It shocked the art world when he created it in 1917 (see next slide for image). It consisted of an ordinary urinal, turned upside down, with a signature of “R. Mutt.” He submitted this as a sculpture to an important art show in New York, which resulted in his expulsion from the Society of Independent Artists. Today, this work is regarded as one of the most influential works in the 20th century; some art historians say it is the most influential work. It is regarded this way because it is the first work that really challenged the ideas of what art is and should be. This breakthrough laid the foundation for what art became in the rest of the 20th century and beyond. While traditional forms of art like painting are still practiced and important today, a lot of the more avant garde work we see today is a direct result of the breakthrough of Duchamp’s Fountain, which forced the artistic community to see beyond the traditional.
Man Ray was an American artist (though he spent a lot of time in France) who was part of the Dada movement and Surrealist movement. Although he wasn’t officially tied to either, his works pushed these movements forward. He was well known for his photography and painting, but worked in a variety of mediums. He also created some works that were ready made in the vein of Duchamp, like Gift (an iron with metal tacks on the bottom). . He became friends with Duchamp in New York and produced works that were Dada in flavor while there. He even helped Duchamp construct the kinetic sculpture, Rotary Glass Plates. He developed a unique method of making images that was in the Dada movement.
The work on the slide (The Coat-Stand, 1920) is an example of a ready made too. It consists of a found object (coat rack) that has been altered and added on to by Man Ray.
A natural progression from Dadaism, and a movement that shared many members, was Surrealism. This was a movement that sought to explore the unconscious mind, and it was rooted in Freud’s ideas of dream association (if you aren’t familiar with Freud, do a little research on him). The Surrealist movement was largely based on Freud’s work Interpretation of Dreams. This movement seeks to find out what is in the unconscious mind through artistic exploration of it. Surrealists believe that that unconscious mind is actually the source of true creativity, and by tapping into that, the best artistic production can be had.
Surrealist imagery is bizarre and strange, juxtaposing images, times, and spaces that don’t seem to go together. If you have vivid dreams, they might be odd like this; dreams don’t always make a lot of sense. Surrealist imagery is avant-garde and bizarre in the same way.
Image: Rene Magritte, The Treachery of Images (1928-1929). This is a key work of Surrealism which will be discussed in full later on.
Probably the most well known Surrealist outside of artistic circles is the Spanish artist, Salvador Dali. His images are recognized by nearly everyone, whether they know about art or not. He was born in Figueres, Spain, and while best known for his paintings, he also worked in photography, sculpture, film, and other media. Dali was also known for his eccentric, attention-grabbing behavior, which only cemented his place in the avant-garde movement of Surrealism.
His painting style is very recognizable and incredibly imaginative, juxtaposing strange images and landscapes. His painting style is actually hyper-realistic in how he shapes objects; what makes it surreal is how he combines various iconography in an avant-garde way. When looking at certain elements of his work, you can see he had classical influence in how he paints specific objects. But his compositions are completely illogical and surreal in how they put imagery together.
Perhaps his most famous work is The Persistence of Memory (see image in your textbook), which is a great example of all the elements of Dali’s style I just discussed. A vast, desert-like landscape is the backdrop for melting pocket watches draped over trees or platforms. This is probably a statement about time, and how Dali saw time as a manmade thing, not as something rigid or set in stone; time is relative. In this example, you can see the realistic, clear portrayals of elements like the clocks; but, they are melting and twisted, lending the surreal feel to the painting.
There are several recurring symbols in Dali’s work. The watches are one example. The elephant is another. The image on the slide (Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening) is an example of this trope. This was the first appearance of the elephant, which appears at the top of the painting. The elephant in this painting shows some of the classical influence of Dali; it is a distorted version of Bernini’s sculpture, Elephant and Obelisk. The elephant is distorted, with long stilt-like legs. This painting is a great example of that dreamlike state that Surrealist painting is often in. It is also a more literal example of the dreamlike state; in the painting is a woman who is sleeping, and her dreams billow out around her in the painting. The woman in the painting is Dali’s wife, Gala. There is a lot of symbolism in this work, much of it being drawn from Christian symbolism. For example, a pomegranate is suspended over the woman; this is an old symbol of fertility. A bee flies over the fruit; bees often are symbols of the Virgin Mary. A bayonet is about to poke the woman’s arm; this might symbolize that the woman is about to wake abruptly from her slumber and from her dream.
The Elephants is another example of the symbol of elephants in Dali’s work. But in this painting, the elephants are the focal point; that isn’t usually true. Usually there are many other images going on as well. Whereas elephants are often regarded as strong and powerful, Dali instead represents them with long, spindly, fragile legs. The elephants serve to create those odd juxtapositions that Surrealist paintings work in; the elephant’s strength contrasted with weightlessness is key.
This is another example of Dali’s capabilities of painting incredibly realistic, almost photographic images, but distorting them somehow. This again shows his wife Gala, another image/symbol that often appears in his works. She is rendered realistically—except for the sphere shapes that make up her face. This is yet another example of the dreamlike state that Dali’s works depict.
Rene Magritte was another very important example of a Surrealist painter. He is known for his witty images that incorporate wordplay with hyper realistic objects; he often depicted realistic objects, just in an illogical or unusual setting.
A well known work of Magritte, and a great example of his painting style and witty wordplay, is The Treachery of Images (see image in your book and on slide 6). The painting shows a picture of the pipe. Under it, it says “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (translated from French, “This is not a pipe”). This is a witty message about what art is and can do. The image is not literally a pipe; rather, it is a representation of a pipe, hence the statement. The title, The Treachery of Images, points out that images are not actually the object; they are but a representation of an object, and images try to fool the viewer.
Another well known work by Magritte is The Son of Man (see image on slide). This is actually a self-portrait, and shows a man in a bowler hat standing in front of a wall, beyond which you can see the sea and the cloudy sky. At first it seems to be a fairly ordinary image of a man—except for the large hovering green apple obscuring the man’s face. The apple is but one feature of Surrealism; if you look closely, you can also see that the man’s left arm bends backwards at the elbow, instead of forwards. The apple hiding the face represents how people often keep their true selves obscured from others, but the real essence of a person does peek out sometimes (as evidenced by the man’s eyes peering out from behind the apple).
A trope you see throughout Magritte’s work is the man with a bowler hat. This image appears in several of his paintings, including The Son of Man and the one on this slide (Golconde). The piece depicts a scene of men that appear to be raining down. They are each nearly identical to each other, dressed in overcoats and bowler hats. They seem to be either falling down like rain drops, floating up like helium balloons, or just stationed in mid air as no movement or motion is implied. The backdrop is a mostly blue sky, lending credence to the theory that the men are not raining. The men are equally spaced in a lattice shape. Some say this painting may be a comment on individuality versus group association. All of the men look identical, and also look quite a bit like Magritte’s self portrait. Yet, each one is still an individual, with his own thoughts and perspective.
This idea of the individual versus the group is expanded upon in the image on the this slide as well (The Mysteries of the Horizon). In this painting, you see again men in dark coats and bowler hats. They each share the same space, but they are all facing different directions. This highlights the idea that though they look identical and are in a group, each has his own perspective, almost seeming to exist in his own separate reality.
The last Magritte example highlights his use of space and perspective to force the viewer to consider what he or she is seeing. In this painting, you see a window through which a cloudy blue sky is seen. But, the right side of the window hangs open, revealing a black background instead of the clouds and sky that should continue. This painting messes with the viewer’s perspective, forcing him or her to ask what happened to the sky; is it just an illusion? And of course, the very painting itself is also just an illusion. This is the heart of Surrealism; to force the viewer to consider what it is he or she is seeing.
Abstract Expressionism is another artistic movement that developed in the 20th century. This one, though, was the first specifically American movement. The popularity of the movement really put New York City as the center of the art world, a spot that had previously been Paris. Surrealism was certainly a predecessor and influence on this movement, and Abstract Expressionism was sort of the natural extension of where Surrealism was going.
Abstract Expressionism emphasized spontaneous and subconscious artistic creation. The “action painting” became important (i.e., when a painter would let the materials dictate how a painting was created by dripping, splattering, spraying, rolling, and throwing paint on a surface). For example, Jackson Pollock is well known for dripping and splashing paint onto a canvas that was laid on the floor, and letting the creation unfold organically.
Josef Albers was an influential artist and teacher who emigrated from Germany. He taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he influenced many future generations of Abstract Expressionists. His work formed the basis of some of the most influential art education programs of the 20th century.
Albers is known for his disciplined approach to composition. He created a wide-ranging series, Homage to the Square, where he explores use of color, how colors interact, and use of shape. The Homage to the Square series is also distinguished by the carefully recorded inscriptions of technical details on the back of each panel. This codification of the making of the painting, along with the reductively systematic application of colors, showcases his detailed study of color. He had a very detailed approach to color, and studied how color interacted with other color. In fact, his book Interaction of Color discusses these issues, and has influenced many artists since its publication.
This slide shows two of the series; the next slide shows a compilation of several of the series. Notice how the colors work against each other and with each other in each example.
Jackson Pollock is the most well known and influential of the Action painters. He transitioned from Regional to Surrealist style, then developed the style he is most known for today: the drip technique, where he dripped paint onto a canvas from above. Using commercial house paint, he would use a stick or brush to drip paint onto a canvas that laid on the ground. He would also use enamel or liquid aluminum on some paintings. This left some chance to how the painting would turn out, though he was also able to control where the drips and splatters would go by manipulating his body. This, then, became a whole body exercise to achieve the kind of paintings he produced.
Pollock’s works, then, are completely abstract. The work is in how colors, abstract shapes, and lines converge, not in representing a specific object.
Most of his paintings are very large, 7 feet or larger. The example on the slide is very large. This painting (Number 1 or Lavender Mist, 1950) combines a variety of colors: neutrals (gray, black, white, cream) with pops of brighter color (the occasional spot of orange, blue, etc.) This work, like many of Pollock’s is an example of pure emotion. The lines, puddles, drips, etc. form many layers that give a sense of energy. The result is spontaneous yet controlled.
There are also physical manipulations on this painting, such as handprints. On the upper left, there are pale gray handprints, and on the upper right there is a set of darker handprints. This shows the physicality it took from Pollock to create the painting; not only was it dripping paint, but also manipulations of the final product.
In contrast to the Action painters like Jackson Pollock, some Abstract Expressionists were applying paint in a more traditional way (with brushes) but using it in a non-traditional format. An example of this is Color Field Painting, or Chromatic Abstraction. These fields of color are useful for studying color theory, but they can also evoke an emotional response: a calm, meditative, even spiritual response.
Image: Mark Rothko; No. 61 (Rust and Blue), 1953.
A prominent and influential example of a Color Field painter is Mark Rothko. Although Russian born, he lived most of his life in New York and was a prominent member of the Abstract Expressionist movement. He is most known for his later works that are examples of Chromatic Abstraction. Rothko’s method was to apply a thin layer of binder mixed with pigment directly onto uncoated and untreated canvas and to paint significantly thinned oils directly onto this layer, creating a dense mixture of overlapping colors and shapes. His brushstrokes were fast and light. The deep fields of color, and how they contrast against each other, is where the emotion and drama of the paintings are found.
Image on right: Four Darks in Red, 1958
On left: Untitled, 1955
Rothko sometimes discussed his work as aiming toward a spiritual experience, or at least an experience that exceeded the boundaries of the purely aesthetic. To this end, the idea of the Rothko Chapel was born. Rothko told friends he intended the Chapel to be his single most important artistic statement. For Rothko, the Chapel was to be a destination, a place of pilgrimage far from the center of art (in this case, New York) where seekers of Rothko’s newly “religious” artwork could journey. The building’s octagonal shape was inspired by Byzantine churches, and the religious implications of the paintings were inspired by ‘Catholic art. The Chapel paintings as envisioned by Rothko consist of a monochrome triptych in soft brown, on the central wall, comprising three 5-by-15-foot panels, and a pair of triptychs on the left and right, made of opaque black rectangles. The Chapel is located in Houston, Texas.
Although Rothko died before the paintings were installed, his vision for it was executed. Today it is a non-denominational chapel with 14 Rothko paintings inside. Three walls display triptychs, while the other five walls display single paintings.