Tuesday, November 3, 2009

France? USA?

Eiffel Tower, Paris, November 2008. Photo by me
Having recently come home from a wonderous trip to the US (NY and NJ in particular) and contemplating my impending trip to France, I dug up (with some nostalgia) yet another paper I wrote ages ago, in my first year at the SASA. It's about the shift of artistic capital from Europe to the US.... namely Paris to NY -

Compare and contrast the approaches to painting in both the United States of America and France in the years between 1900 and 1945 with reference to historical and contemporary politics.

France and America have always had a historical bond, from the days of the American Revolutionary War from 1775 to 1789[1]. To unite the American people against the English, the French monarchy sent military aid to the revolutionaries. Eventually, the revolutionary ideals of democracy, equality, fraternity and, most importantly, freedom, spread to the European continent manifesting in the 1789 French revolution. The two republics were born from the same struggle and with the same idealistic goals. Throughout history, the import and export of ideologies has continued into the twentieth century and has extended to artistic ideals as well. However, politically, the two nations have been at odds since the end of the 19th century. At the beginning of the 20th century, Paris became a Mecca for modern artists, drawing Americans searching for freedom from the realistic tendencies of American art. However, these expatriates were forced home by the economic troubles of the 1930s[2] and the stock market crash of 1929, as well as the Second World War.

At the turn of the 20th Century, the USA was one of the most politically rigid of the capitalist democracies in the world, and lacked a socialist voice, like France.[3] The general consensus in the art world was that industry was as much a threat to human interests and values as fascism.[4]The French capital offered a more socialistic political zeitgeist and a more welcoming and tolerant environment for social outcasts like African Americans and homosexuals. Also, the introduction of alcohol prohibition in America in 1920 pushed more American Bohemians to the European continent, in particular, to Paris. However, not only Americans flocked to Paris. The French capital was filled with foreigners from all over Europe, New Zealand and Australia[5]. Visually, the Paris of the early twentieth century was one of social freedoms and a lack of inhibitions, characterised by the gestural and expressive posters of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec[6] and the work of the Nabis movement, headed by Paul Gauguin who pioneered the use of rich, atmospheric colour, flat shapes and heavy contours.[7] Gauguin’s use of tribal and exotic subjects from his childhood in Peru and later, his life in the French Pacific Islands added to a fascination with the exotic in French Art circles,[8] along with Picasso’s fascination with African masks.

This fascination with ‘the beautiful savage’[9]could also be seen in the work of the Fauves. Although the name, Fauve, or ‘wild beasts’[10]was adopted as a tongue-in-cheek response to art critic Louis Vauxcelles’ derogatory comment regarding the first exhibition of Henri Matisse’s The Dance in 1910. Vauxcelles’ comment was made in regards to the brilliantly coloured images and dynamic, expressive brushwork of the Fauvists, impregnated with a hedonism which contemporary European sensibilities regarded as ‘savage’.[11] Fauvist style was the precursor to other expressionist styles, notably the post-war abstract expressionism that became popular in post-war America. However, American artists, such as Marsden Hartley and Stuart Davis, draw inspiration from the European avant-garde. Hartley travelled to Paris in 1912 under the advice of Alfred Steiglitz[12], the owner of the 291 Gallery in New York. His inspiration from the European avant-garde, particularly the Fauvist and Expressionist use of colour is reflected in his 1940 ‘Madawaska-Arcadian Light-Heavy’. Like the Fauvists, Hartley attempts to convey the full emotive value of colour.[13]

Around the same time that Fauvism was reaching its peak, Cubism was being developed by Spanish-born Pablo Picasso and Frenchman Georges Braque and was the first artistic movement to rival the international reach and influence of impressionism.[14]The central idea of Cubism was in the simultaneity of interpreting an object from many different angles at once. The Cubists were also united in their relative disdain for expressive colour, causing a defining feature of cubist paintings to be in dull and muted tones. Cubism also challenged the renaissance idea of creating an illusion of the third dimension on a flat surface[15]. For example, ‘Composition with Ace of Clubs’ by Braque, who, rather than recreate illusion of the third dimension, created a depth in his image of the card table by showing both the top and side views simultaneously[16]. By 1920, artists such as Stuart Davis, Alexander Calder and Max Weber incorporated cubism into American styles[17]. Polish-born Max Weber became one of Americas leading cubists after he travelled to Paris from his adopted home in New York in 1905. Weber was fascinated by the concept of simultaneity in painting. Works such as his 1917 ‘Two Musicians’ show the adoption of the cubist concept of simultaneity with different sides of the heads of the piano and bass players visible at once, as well as the traditionally cubist muted colours.[18]Eventually Weber broke free of the dull tones of cubism, combining lively colours with the flat-planed cubist style.

Unlike the cubist tendency against bright colour, the breakthrough Orphism movement founded by Robert and Sonya Delaunay focused on the emotional impact of pure colour. The name was conceived by theorist Guillaume Apollinaire to describe the liberation of colour from its representational function[19]. The idea was a development of fauvist ideas, with whom Sonya Delaunay was associated.[20] Although the movement only consisted of the Delaunay couple, its theory and practice reached the United States, in particular the work of Stanton McDonald-Wright and Morgan Russell. Orphism produced the first official non-objective art in the world[21], an abstract art that, through its autonomous nature, did nothing to corrupt society[22].
However, non-objective art did not reach its pinnacle of fame until the American Abstract Expressionist movement in the 1950s. Many European artists, such as the surrealists continued to paint in the Western figurative tradition, employing renaissance techniques such as perspective that had been abandoned by most other art movements[23]. In 1924, writer Andre Breton issued the first literary surrealist manifesto[24]which soon stretched its influence over the visual arts, aimed at “resolving the previously contradictory contradiction of dream and reality”[25]In the visual arts, surrealism involved unnerving and illogical paintings with photographic precision and an absence of painterly presence inspired by the emerging ideas in Sigmund Freud’s work and the practice of psychoanalysis[26]. Politically, the surrealists rejected the bourgeois conception of art by applying ‘bourgeois’ techniques to unconventional, controversial and sometimes shocking imagery. One such image is Hans Bellmer’s ‘A Thousand Girls’ of 1939 just after the artist moved to Paris to become involved in the Surrealist movement[27]. Bellmer was inspired by the vegetable and produce anthropomorphic images of Giuseppe Achimboldo. ‘A thousand Girls’ is an image of a bound woman, her head disappearing in a precarious pile of internal organs. However, not all surrealist work is necessarily grotesquely shocking. The work of Pierre Roy portrays Freudian concepts with a juxtaposition of bizarre objects and an unreal or unintelligible narrative.

A majority of European surrealists, along with other artists, emigrated from Europe to the United States at the time of the Second World War, including Yves Tanguy, who became one of America's leading surrealists, with his wife, Kay Sage. Both Tanguy and Sage, along with the more famous surrealists, de Chirico and Dali, are classed metaphysical surrealists, characterised by their use of long shadows, infinite expanses, smooth surfaces, anthropomorphic imagery and a confusing and disorientating change in natural scale.[28] The confusing imagery challenges the basic childhood development of consciousness, to differentiate between the animate and inanimate, edible and inedible. However, some objects remain doubtful in the eyes of the child and it is these objects that the metaphysical surrealists decide to use as recurring images in their work.[29]Both Tanguy and Sage use forms in their work that have a vague and uncertain interpretation. Tanguy’s 1932 ‘Ribbon of Extremes’ depicts organ-like shapes strung together, which suggest some form of animal or human connection but are ultimately unidentifiable.[30]Similarly, Sage’s 1940 ‘Lost Record’ shows a post-apocalyptic world with unidentifiable objects that have been destroyed by time or some sort of disaster and echoes de Chirico’s work, and that of her husband.

The surrealist movement was, arguably the longest lasting in its original form. Although other European-born movements of the early 20th century may have had more of an impact on modern and post-modern art depending on the point of view and context of the argument, Surrealism lasted in its original form well into the time of the abstract expressionists with the work of the American Surrealists, who emigrated from Europe during the time of war and political instability in Spain, France and other continental European nations and, in turn, inspired a generation of American surrealists who worked after the Second World War, like Kay Sage and Dorothea Tanning, along with the émigrés like Tanguy.

One of the biggest shifts in art within the Twentieth century was the emergence of the Museum, which, in America unlike in Europe, was a private, capitalist institution. The American model of the Museum fulfilled the role that had before been dominated by private patronage.[31] This beginning of revolution in art was aptly taking place in America, where technological progress was not hampered by the traditions of old Europe.[32] While many American artists were gaining inspiration abroad, others were true to an American style. The American artist, Thomas Eakins, was educated n Paris but returned to Philadelphia to encourage his students to absorb the culture around them rather than rely on the formal aesthetic modes from Europe.[33] Artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia left Europe in a voluntary exile to New York City showing that European artists were also finding a niche in the United States, especially those whose politics centred on the dismantling of the cultural tenants of European bourgeoisie[34]. This political stance within the art world caused American art in the early 20th century to break into two idiosyncrasies, that of the realists and those who brought in the ideas of the European avant-garde.

Following in the artistic culture of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, American artists who did not absorb the European avant-garde created an ethos of realism, often on a grand scale in colossal works like Mount Rushmore by Gutzon Borglum. American Trotskyism began in the early 20th Century and continued until the birth of Abstraction as the painting style of choice for Americans in the 1940s along with the de-marxification of American intelligentsia.[35]As late as 1937, Trotsky wrote an open letter for the Partisan Review describing the “catastrophic position of the American artist who thought he could better himself was stuck in the bourgeois stranglehold of mediocrity”[36]The work of leading American realists, such as Alice Neel, created intimate portraits with a tough starkness to detail the hardships of life and urban living,[37] especially in her portraits of members of the Spanish Harlem community. The theme of urbanism can be found in the work of many American realists like Edward Hopper, Thomas Hart Benton and Charles Sheeler. However, while Hopper had a more humanist point of view, claiming he subconsciously painted the loneliness of a large city[38], while Sheeler focused on the purity and beauty of machines. Sheeler’s ‘Rolling Power’ of 1939 is a precise rendering of mechanic wheels, pistons and rivets of a locomotive which pre-empts the photorealism that followed in the 1960s in his attempt to find a modernist form of classicism.

Thomas Hart Benton is best remembered for his work as the leader of the Missouri regionalists that focused on the concerns of the people in rural America, including their pastimes, entertainment and daily life. However, Benton’s rich-colour realism also extended to portraying the chaotic experience of everyday life, like the themes of Hopper’s work. The 1930 ‘City Activities with Subway’ is definitive of the artist’s time in New York and shares thematic links with the art of the European avant-garde, mainly that of chaos of modern life. The idea of simultaneity was, like the work of the cubists, found in that of Benton’s; however Benton had a very different stylistic approach. Instead of flattening the surface, he kept with the western traditions of realism and perspective, but divided ‘City Activities with Subway’ into smaller sections, each showing a different facet of urban living. Similarly, George Bellows’ bold and broad brush strokes, use of dramatic lighting and a feeling of tension detailed the same period of time in New York City. Bellows’ association with ‘The Eight’ or The Ashcan School[39], a group which advocated the painting of contemporary American society, and rejected the abstraction brought from Europe. The politics of his work was blatantly socialist, and satirized the upper classes while portraying the crudeness and chaos of working-class neighbourhoods. Philip Evergood, who also worked in New York at the time of Bellows, presented a different form of satire. Evergood painted in an exaggerated realist style, his figures and settings recognisable but somewhat skewed. His 1935 “Dance Marathon” shows a distorted dance contest, the likes of which were a craze in poverty-stricken America during the Great Depression, when unemployed people were driven to try their luck and some had to be taken to hospitals, suffering from exhaustion. Evergood’s distortion of his subjects’ features and costumes shows his contempt and pity.[40] Despite his distorting techniques, Evergood’s work is classified as realism, the artist having rejected abstraction in art as protest, joining the likes of Bellows and Benton in the development of American realism.

However, the politics and themes found in American Abstraction were not very different to that in American Realism. Works such as ‘The Enchanted Ones’ (1945) by Adolph Gottleib carried a humanist politic, with a message against the death and destruction during the Second World War. Although Gottleib’s work is abstract and pictographic in style, his influence was not found in the European avant-garde but the primitive and Native American art the painter collected during his lifetime. His work and personal beliefs were mainly shaped by the culture of the Inuit people of Alaska.[41]Similar to artists such as Bellows and Benton during his time in New York, the work of Stuart Davis reflects the confusion of urban living. His 1941 painting ‘New York Under Gaslight’ shows the noise and excitement of New York and evokes the beat of Jazz music. Davis’ work is based on overstatement and a rejection of traditional perspective.[42]However, unlike the realists or Gottleib, Davis was influenced by the French avant-garde movements such as expressionism and cubism.

Conversely to the Politics of art, was the seemingly apolitical work of Georgia O’Keefe, who specialised in banal subjects and almost total, unrecognisable abstraction in which representation became the subject.[43]O’Keefe’s recognisable brand of abstraction was based on cropping the image and distorting the scale, so that a flower bud became larger than life, and ultimately unrecognisable. O’Keefe abandoned a political stance, and her urban landscape scenes of her time in New York, when she moved to the country’s South West. Her work strives to be universally understood, fighting against her seemingly apolitical stance within the politics of aesthetic. Ultimately, her work was to be autonomous of any national artistic tendency, without corrupting society[44]and becomes political in its apolitical nature. O’Keefe assimilated the more radical tendencies of European Art of the early twentieth century. However, upon her return, these European ideas were focused with an American sensibility and her work drew its roots in the vast American landscape in a way that these two seemingly conflicting artistic traditions were not reconciled by any other artist.

Since the birth of modern democracy, the relationship between France and the United States has been blurred and sometimes politically uncomfortable due to difference in national zeitgeist at any one time, and a different approach towards most aspects of nationhood and politics. However, this difference has proved to be a boiling pot for the exchange of artistic ideas. At the beginning of the 20th century, American artists who wanted to escape the socialist realist trends of their home country indulged in a more liberal lifestyle in Europe and became involved in the development of crucial avant-garde movements centred in France and other artistic capitals in Western Europe. Many aspects of fauvism, expressionism, surrealism and cubism as well as the beginnings of Non-Objective Art, found their way into the work of American artists, which were all pre-cursors for the abstract expressionist movement that created a new artistic hub in the United States after the Second World War. Conversely, artists whose poitics rested more with the Marxist intelligentsia in the United States, like Duchamp and Picabia, settled in America as part of a voluntary exile from the bourgeois culture of Western Europe. During the political instabilities in Europe before and during the Second World War, the United States provided an unoccupied and democratic arena for artists to continue their practice and develop their ideas without censorship or war. Through this refuge in America, many art movements that began in Europe, such as surrealism, were adopted into the American consciousness and allowed to be active for longer, when they may have reached an end in war-torn Europe. Politics has always been integral to art and artistic expression, but possibly most strongly in the exchange of ideas and aesthetic rivalry between French and American visual culture.

[1] Gombrich, E H, The Story of Art: Pocket Edition, Phaidon Publishing, London, 2006, p429
[2] Hamilton, G H, Painting and Sculpture in Europe 1880-1940, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1993 p473
[3]Frascina, F and Harris, J (Ed.) Art in Modern Culture, Phaidon Publishing, London, 1999, p34
[4] Ibid, p38
[5] Brettell, R R, Modern Art 1851-1929, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999, p53
[6] Bocola, S, The Art of Modernism, Prestel, Munich, 1999, p150
[7] Ibid, p138
[8] 20th Century Art Book, Phaidon Publishing, London, 1999, p156
[9] Ibid
[10] Brettell, R R, Modern Art 1851-1929, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999, p29
[11] Ibid
[12] 20th Century Art Book, Phaidon Publishing, London, 1999, p189
[13] Ibid
[14] Brettell, R R, Modern Art 1851-1929, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999, p32
[15] Gombrich, E H, The Story of Art: Pocket Edition, Phaidon Publishing, London, 2006, p445
[16] Bocola, S, The Art of Modernism, Prestel, Munich, 1999, p186
[17] Hamilton, G H, Painting and Sculpture in Europe 1880-1940, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1993, p349
[18] 20th Century Art Book, Phaidon Publishing, London, 1999, p487
[19] Brettell, R R, Modern Art 1851-1929, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999, p36
[20] 20th Century Art Book, Phaidon Publishing, London, 1999, p105
[21] Hamilton, G H, Painting and Sculpture in Europe 1880-1940, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1993, p15-16
[22] Frascina, F and Harris, J (Ed.) Art in Modern Culture, Phaidon Publishing, London, 1999, p38
[23] Bocola, S, The Art of Modernism, Prestel, Munich, 1999, p346
[24] Brettell, R R, Modern Art 1851-1929, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999, p45
[25] Breton, A in: 20th Century Art Book, Phaidon Publishing, London, 1999, p515
[26] Gombrich, E H, The Story of Art: Pocket Edition, Phaidon Publishing, London, 2006, p457
[27] Bocola, S, The Art of Modernism, Prestel, Munich, 1999, p358
[28] Ibid, p351
[29] Ibid
[30] 20th Century Art Book, Phaidon Publishing, London, 1999, p451
[31] Frascina, F and Harris, J (Ed.) Art in Modern Culture, Phaidon Publishing, London, 1999, p82
[32] Gombrich, E H, The Story of Art: Pocket Edition, Phaidon Publishing, London, 2006, p430
[33] Crouch, C, Modernism in art, design & architecture, Macmillan Press Ltd, New York, 1999, p132
[34] Frascina, F and Harris, J (Ed.) Art in Modern Culture, Phaidon Publishing, London, 1999, p224
[35] Ibid, p241
[36] Trotsky, L, Partisan Review, December 1937 in: Frascina, F and Harris, J (Ed.) Art in Modern Culture, Phaidon Publishing, London, 1999, p241
[37] 20th Century Art Book, Phaidon Publishing, London, 1999, p333
[38] Read, H, The Philosophy of Modern Art, Faber and Faber, London, 1975, p210
[39] Read, H, The Philosophy of Modern Art, Faber and Faber, London, 1975, p39
[40] 20th Century Art Book, Phaidon Publishing, London, 1999, p134
[41] Bocola, S, The Art of Modernism, Prestel, Munich, 1999, p400
[42] 20th Century Art Book, Phaidon Publishing, London, 1999, p102
[43] Brettell, R R, Modern Art 1851-1929, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999, p190
[44] Frascina, F and Harris, J (Ed.) Art in Modern Culture, Phaidon Publishing, London, 1999, p38

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