Welcome to Part V (1900-Present), the conclusion of my survey of art history. The seven Art History 101 lists contain every work of art that was on at least two of the 24 ‘Best Works of Art’ lists that I collected from the Internet and books. Although most of the resources available to me focused almost exclusively on the art of Western Civilization, the list does identify some of the most significant artworks produced by the artists of Asia, Africa and South America. Because I believe visuals are essential for discussing the visual arts, I have included images of the art works, In most cases, you can click on the images to enlarge them. (I have tried to use public domain images where possible. In other cases, I believe this is a fair non-commercial use for educational purposes. If there are copyright concerns, please let me know.) Each entry includes the date of the work, the artist’s name, the name (or names) of the work, the style or culture associated with the work, and the location where the work was produced. In addition, I have included a brief essay with description (including measurements), artistic materials used, background and interpretation. To see the rest of the Art History 101 series, click on the links below:
Part IA (Prehistoric Era-399 CE)
Part IB (400-1399 CE)
Part IIA (1400-1499)
Part IIB (1500-1599)
Part III (1600-1799)
Part IV (1800-1899)
1902: Gustav Klimt: The Beethoven Frieze [Symbolism/Art Nouveau; Austria]
Austrian artist Gustav Klimt painted the Beethoven Frieze on the walls of Vienna’s Secession Building, an exhibition hall dedicated to the Vienna Secession, a group of artists that left the Association of Austrian Artists in 1897. The frieze, which measures 6.6 ft. tall by 111 ft. long, was painted for the 14th Vienna Secessionist exhibition in 1902 celebrating composer Ludwig van Beethoven (see first image above). The allegorical program of the frieze is based on Richard Wagner’s interpretation of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, with the following characters/episodes, beginning from left: (1) Two floating genii embody man’s Yearning for Happiness. (2) A couple and child representing the Suffering of Weak Mankind plead with the Knight in Shining Armor (the External Driving Force) to take up the fight for Happiness (see second image above). Supporting the Knight are two women representing Compassion and Ambition. (3) In the search for Happiness, humanity confronts the Hostile Forces, represented by the monster Typhoeus with his daughters the three Gorgons (Sickness, Madness and Death) on his left, and on his right women representing Lasciviousness/Unchastity, Wantonness/Voluptuousness and Intemperance/Excess (see third image above). On their right, isolated, is Gnawing Sorrow (see fourth image above). (4) Having flown past the Hostile Forces, the Yearning for Happiness genii find Poetry, playing her lyre; (5) Finally, the genii reach the heavenly land of the Arts (represented by a narrow band of women with billowing hair), the Chorus of Paradise (singing the Ode to Joy), and finally The Embrace, or Kiss for the Whole World (see fifth image above). Scholars have noted that in making the Beethoven Frieze, Klimt has drawn from sources as varied as ancient Greek, Byzantine and Medieval art, Japanese prints and contemporaries such as Ferdinand Hodler and Edvard Munch. Originally intended only for the 1902 exhibition, the frieze was purchased by a collector in 1903 and removed from the Secession Building’s walls. In 1973, the Austrian Government bought the Beethoven Frieze and installed it in a specially-designed room in the basement of the Secession Building, where the public has been able to view the frieze since 1986 (see sixth image above).
1903: Wassily Kandinsky: The Blue Rider [Expressionism; Russia/Germany]
In his writings, Russian painter and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky assigned a special role to the color blue. According to Kandinsky, blue was the color of spirituality: the darker the blue, the more it awakened our desire for the eternal. When Kandinsky painted The Blue Rider in 1903, he was associated with the German Expressionists, expressionism was one of many styles he adopted on his journey toward total abstraction. Although Kandinsky’s work at this time was representational, he was interested in allowing the viewer to help determine the meaning of the art work. The Blue Rider shows a small cloaked figure riding a horse through a meadow. Some believe the rider is holding a child in his arms, a question Kandinsky refused to resolve. Curiously, Kandinsky has depicted the horse’s legs in a manner that is inconsistent with the animal’s natural gait. Instead of creating a detailed representation of the horse and its rider, Kandinsky paints them as a series of patches of color. The rider’s blue cloak, the source of the painting’s title, casts a blue shadow on the ground. A rough triangle of darker blue shadows, perhaps cast by trees beyond the canvas, covers much of the lower register, balancing the blue mountains and orange trees in the upper section. The Blue Rider was made with oils on a canvas measuring 1.8 ft. tall by 2.1 ft. wide. It is now in a private collection in Zürich, Switzerland. Random Trivia: Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) was also the name of a group of artists, led by Kandinsky and Franz Marc, that formed in 1911 in reaction to an art establishment they believed had become too strict and traditional. It was never clear what connection there was, if any, between the group and the painting of the same name. Der Blaue Reiter disbanded in 1914.
c. 1890-1905: Unknown Artist(s): Fang Ngil Masks [Fang; Gabon/Cameroon]
Until the early 20th Century, an essential aspect of the Fang culture in what is now Gabon, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea on the Atlantic coast of Africa was a secret male society known as the Ngil, which had some extra-judicial responsibilities, including hunting and punishing witches and sorcerers. When engaged in their nighttime activities, including initiations of new members, the Ngil wore wooden masks surrounded by a fiber ruff and clothing adorned with raffia strips. The masks themselves (sometimes called gorilla masks) had elongated, heart-shaped faces with broad foreheads, arched, overhanging brows, long, fine noses and small, protruding mouths. The Ngil masks were often decorated with a white pigment made from kaolin, the color of death and spirits. Exhibits of similar masks in early 20th Century Europe had a significant influence on Western artists. The images above show five examples of Fang Ngil masks:
(1) mask made of wood, measuring 26 in. tall, late 19th Century Gabon, now in the Louvre in Paris;
(2) mask made of wood, measuring 21 in. tall, 12 in. wide, and 10 in. deep;
(3) mask made of wood, measuring 17 in. tall and 5.5 in. wide, Gabon;
(4) mask made of wood, kaolin and pigment;
(5) mask made of wood, kaolin and pigment, measuring 19 in. tall, Gabon.
1905: Claude Monet: Water Lilies [Impressionism; France]
After painting various subjects in his career, beginning in about 1897 and continuing to the end of his life in 1926, Claude Monet restricted his focus to the gardens at his Giverny home, particularly the water garden and the water lilies that grew there. His early paintings showed the water lilies in the context of the landscape around the water, including trees, sky and horizon line. By 1905, when Monet painted Water Lilies (see image above), he had abandoned the rules of conventional landscape painting to focus exclusively on the surface of the water. The 1905 painting, which was made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.9 ft. tall by 3.3 ft. wide, renders the water lilies and the pads beneath them in perspective, as they recede into the background. The surface of the water shows the reflections of the unseen sky, clouds and trees. There is no horizon line to anchor the viewer to a universe outside this patch of water. Instead, the artist asks us to explore the interplay of the real and the reflected. Water Lilies is now located in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
1905: André Derain: Portrait of Matisse [Fauvism; France]
During the summer of 1905, French artists Henri Matisse and André Derain vacationed together in the fishing village of Collioure in the south of France. While there, the two men continued an experiment in painting pictures with strong non-naturalistic colors in small separate brushstrokes reminiscent of Seurat’s Pointillism. They were attempting to convey sensations of light and shade, but they rejected the Impressionists’ commitment to representation, particularly in the area of color. Instead of painting the colors they saw, they chose instead to paint the colors they felt. During the trip, the artists painted portraits of each other. Derain’s Portrait of Matisse shows the essential elements of this new style – bold expressionistic colors and obvious brushstrokes. Upon their return to Paris, Matisse and Derain exhibited their works along with like-minded artists at the Salon d’Automne. It was there that critic Louis Vauxcelles coined the term ‘fauves’ or wild beasts, to describe these painters. Portrait of Matisse was made with oils on a canvas measuring 1.5 ft. tall by 1.1 ft. wide. It is now in the Tate Modern in London.
1898-1906: Paul Cézanne: The Large Bathers [Post-Impressionism; France]
Cézanne’s The Large Bathers (also known as The Bathers or Les Grandes Baigneuses) is the last and the largest in a series of ‘bathers’ paintings he created around the turn of the century. Cézanne disliked labels and movements, and this painting shows why. The grouping of nudes and triangular structure hearken back to Renaissance forms and themes – the subject of Diana bathing with her maidens may have been an inspiration – but the details of the figures are modern – strangely-posed, faceless, lacking sensuality, in some cases only half-drawn – and the scene in the distance appears to be contemporary, not mythological. The bowing trees create a stage on which the women may perform, yet, as noted by curator Joseph Rishel, despite the motion and activity, “there is a profound sense of eternal calm and resolution.” The nudes are based on drawings or other paintings, not live models, which only adds to the flatness of the figures, which anticipate the forms of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon a year later. Scholars generally agree that Cézanne had not finished the painting at the time of his death in 1906, although some believe that its unfinished state adds to its exalted and serene quality. The Large Bathers was made with oils on a canvas measuring 8 ft. tall by 7 ft. wide and is now located in the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
c. 1902-1906: Paul Cézanne: Mont Sainte-Victoire from Les Lauves (series)
In 1901, French Post-Impressionist artist Paul Cézanne bought some land in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France, along the Chemin des Lauves road, in order to build a new studio. Between 1902 and 1906, Cézanne, working en plein air, painted 11 oil paintings and 17 watercolors from this location, all featuring his beloved Mont Sainte-Victoire. Cézanne had long since rejected the traditional concepts of perspective and proportion. He was now engaged in a direct dialogue with nature, painting the reality he perceived and felt, using color, not modeling or one-point perspective, to create a sense of monumentality and space. As one scholar noted, the juxtaposition of pigments makes the picture vibrate while simultaneously creating the illusion of weight. While Cézanne seeks to render a sensation, his process is much slower and more consciously cerebral than that of the Impressionists. Four of Cézanne’s last paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire are pictured above:
(1) Landscape at Aix (Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from Les Lauves), 1904-1906, oils on a canvas measuring 1.9 ft. tall by 2.7 ft. wide, now at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Art in Moscow;
(2) Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from Les Lauves, 1902-1906, oils on a canvas measuring 2.1 ft. tall by 2.7 ft. wide, now at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri;
(3) Mont Sainte-Victoire, 1904-1906, oils on a canvas measuring 2.1 ft. tall by 2.7 ft. wide, now at the Kunsthaus Zürich in Zürich, Switzerland; and
(4) Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from Les Lauves, 1904-1906, oils on a canvas measuring 1.9 ft. high by 2.4 ft. wide, now at Kunstmuseum Basel in Basel, Switzerland.
1905-906: Henri Matisse: Le Bonheur de Vivre (Joy of Life) [Fauvism; France]
Matisse’s Le Bonheur de Vivre (The Joy of Life) was considered radical in its day, not just for the Fauvist use of color to express emotional reality, but more for the daring rejection of the rules of perspective: the sizes and shapes of the adult humans seem to depend on the viewer being in many places at once, including inside the world of the painting. This break with tradition was inspired by Cezanne and in turn inspired Picasso, who is said to have begun Les Demoiselles d’Avignon after seeing this painting hanging in the Paris home of its then-owner, Gertrude Stein. Make with oil paints on a canvas measuring 5.8 ft tall by 7.9 ft wide, Le Bonheur de Vivre is now at the The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. Random Trivia: Matisse returned to the circle of dancers, seen in the background here, in The Dancers, from 1909 and 1910.
1906: Gustav Klimt: Portrait of Fritza Riedler [Symbolism/Art Nouveau; Austria]
In the early years of the 20th Century, Austrian artist Gustav Klimt became the portraitist for the well-heeled Viennese bourgeoisie. His Portrait of Fritza Reidler, the wife of a Vienna engineer and councilor, marks the beginning of Klimt’s Golden Period (see first image above). Klimt creates a triangular composition of the subject in her pale, ruffled dress against a background of gold and orange blocks. While he renders the head and hands somewhat realistically, though without shadows, the chair has been transformed into what one critic called “a flat honeycomb of blanched-almond statue eyes” and the window behind Reidler’s head is a “secular mosaic-enamel halo” that may pay tribute to the coiffure in Velázquez’s Infanta Margarita Teresa in a Pink Dress (1653-1654) (see second image above). The Portrait of Fritza Reidler, also known simply as Fritza Reidler, was made with oils on a canvas measuring 5 ft. tall by 4.4 ft. wide. It is now in the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere in Vienna.
1907: Gustav Klimt: Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (Adele Bloch-Bauer I)
[Symbolism/Art Nouveau; Austria]
Were Adele Bloch-Bauer and Austrian painter Gustav Klimt more than just painter and subject? We know that when Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a wealthy Jewish industrialist, commissioned a portrait of his wife Adele, a beautiful socialite and hostess of a prestigious salon, Klimt spent three years on the project. We also know that Klimt’s design for Bloch-Bauer’s gold and silver dress includes open eyes, almond shapes and other symbols with erotic meaning (see first image above). We know that Adele Bloch-Bauer dedicated a room in her house to Klimt’s paintings and drawings, as well as a photograph of the artist himself. But ultimately, when the gossip fades away, the painting must stand on its own. Made using oils, silver and gold on a canvas measuring 4.5 ft. square, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I was made in Klimt’s ‘Golden Period’, which was inspired by his visit to St. Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, and its Byzantine mosaics, particularly the gold-inlaid portrait of Empress Theodora. Klimt, a member of the Vienna Secession, painted Adele Bloch-Bauer in the Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) style, which looked to natural forms and structures for inspiration, but also treated design and decoration as seriously as human figures. Klimt painted a second, less well-regarded portrait of the subject, Adele Bloch-Bauer II, in 1912 (see second image above). Adele, who had always been sickly, died in 1925 at 43. In 1938, the Nazis annexed Austria and Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer fled to Switzerland, leaving behind all the Klimt paintings, which were confiscated by the government. After the war, Bloch-Bauer’s nieces and nephews fought the Austrian government in court, finally receiving custody of five Klimts, including the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, in 2005. Cosmetics giant Ronald Lauder bought the golden portrait for a record $135 million in 2006 for his Neue Galerie in New York, where it remains.
1907: Pablo Picasso: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon [Cubism; Spain/France]
Spanish painter Pablo Picasso’s portrait of five prostitutes from a Barcelona brothel caused nothing less than an artistic revolution; it heralded a new modernism in art, including the birth of Cubism. Painted in Paris during the summer of 1907 using oil paints on a canvas measuring 8 ft. tall by 7.7 ft. wide, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon breaks all the rules: Picasso makes little attempt to create the illusion of three-dimensionality; he ignores the rules of perspective and abandons the idea of proportionality. Space in the painting’s world is fragmented and compressed; sharp angles abound – even a slice of cantaloupe becomes a lethal weapon. His women are not beautiful; their sharp-edged bodies seem capable of violence. In perhaps the most shocking of the painting’s shocks, the two figures on the right possess grotesque features influenced by Iberian sculpture and perhaps (although Picasso denied it) African masks. While on a surface level the painting may be ‘about’ sex, it is even more about the act of seeing and the act of making art. In Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Picasso shows us that three-dimensionality on a two-dimensional canvas is an illusion, and that perhaps the only way an artist can create truthfully is to expose the nature of that illusion. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is now in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
1907: Walter Richard Sickert: Mornington Crescent Nudes [Camden Town Group; UK]
English artist Walter Richard Sickert rented rooms in Mornington Crescent in the somewhat disreputable Camden Town section of London between 1905 and 1907 and there painted a series of nudes, including Mornington Crescent Nude (see first image above) and Mornington Crescent Nude, Contre jour (Mornington Crescent Nude, Lit from Behind) (see second image above) in 1907. According to art historians, Sickert saw in the figure of the nude woman “a gleam of warmth and life” that was enhanced by setting the figure against more light absorptive surfaces – here, the curtains, bed linen, and the model’s clothes, abandoned on a nearby chair. Scholars believe that Sickert wanted his paintings to entice the viewer to enter into them, to create the sense that something exciting was happening. The painting entitled Mornington Crescent Nude gives rise to questions of meaning: who is this immobile woman in a dimly-lit room, upon whom the artist gazes so coolly? Is she a lover? A prostitute? Is she alive or dead? Shortly after Sickert painted this nude, a young prostitute was found dead in a Camden Town flat, lying naked on her bed, her throat cut by a customer. The work entitled Mornington Crescent Nude, Contre jour, whose nude is very much alive, may have been painted after the murder. Members of the Royal Academy were appalled by this and other similar works by Sickert, calling them ‘bordello paintings’ and ‘slum art.’ (1) Mornington Crescent Nude, 1907, made with oils on a canvas measuring 1.5 ft. tall by 1.7 ft. wide, is now at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England; (2) Mornington Crescent Nude, Contre-jour, 1907, made with oils on a canvas measuring 1.7 ft. tall by 2 ft. wide, is now at the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide, South Australia.
1907-1908: Constantin Brâncuși: The Kiss [Modernism/Abstract Art; Romania/France]
Romanian-born sculptor Constantin Brâncuși, who spent most of his working career in France, first created The Kiss in 1907-1908; he exhibited a plaster version in the Armory Show in 1913. The sculpture couples unity with duality, as two figures emerge from a single block of material and become one. The figures are cut under the breastline and the fragmented bodies stand directly on the floor. The profile of the figures’ partial eyes merge until they appear to be one cyclopian eye shared by both individuals. In creating The Kiss, Brâncuși abandoned the traditional method of building up a model from clay or plaster and instead created the figure by direct chiseling in stone. For the stone versions, Brâncuși brought out the character of the stone by the irregular treatment of its surface. Brâncuși returned to the motif of The Kiss again and again through his career. The earliest versions of The Kiss show a naturalistic treatment of the motif that hearkens back to the naivety of medieval figurative ornamentation. As time progressed, the arms became flatter, the bodies more elongated and the hair more distinctly linear, tending further toward abstraction. Three versions are shown in the images above:
(1) & (2) The Kiss, 1907-1908, made of Marna limestone and measuring 11 in. tall by 10.25 in. wide by 8.5 in. deep, is now in the Muzeul de Arta in Craiova, Romania;
(3) The Kiss, 1909-1910, made of stone and measuring 2.9 ft. tall by 0.9 ft. wide by 0.6 ft deep, is now in Montparnasse Cemetery at the grave of anarchist Tatiana Rachewskaia, who committed suicide after a failed love affair;
(4) The Kiss, 1916, made of limestone and measuring 1.9 ft. tall by 1.1 ft. wide by 0.8 ft. deep, is now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
1907-1908: Gustav Klimt: The Kiss [Symbolism/Art Nouveau; Austria]
Measuring nearly 6 feet square, Austrian Symbolist Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss, also known as Lovers, was painted on canvas using oil paints with applied layers of gold leaf. Made during Klimt’s Golden Period, The Kiss is a prime example of the Viennese Art Nouveau style, while also incorporating elements of the Arts and Crafts movement. The use of gold and the overall flatness of the painting (with the exception of the area around the faces) hearkens back to the Christian iconography in Medieval and Byzantine art, such as the mosaics of San Vitale in Ravenna that inspired Klimt. Also, both figures are crowned with halo-like bands of leaves (the man) and flowers (the woman), further creating the sense of the eternal. The Kiss is located in the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere in Vienna.
1908: Henri Matisse: Dessert: Harmony in Red (The Red Room)
“I find that all these things … only become what they are to me when I see them together with the color red.” – Henri Matisse. After Russian art collector Sergey Shchukin commissioned Henri Matisse to create a painting titled Harmony in Blue, Matisse tried his best to fulfill the request, but after a while, he painted over the blue room with his signature red. Dessert: Harmony in Red (sometimes called simply Harmony in Red or The Red Room) presents us with a room decorated with vases and bowls of fruit, a woman, a table and two chairs, and a window opening to a garden, but what draws us in are the wallpaper and tablecloth, which seem to blend together in a sea of oozing red that seems less like the color of an object and more like the simple existence of a large area of paint on a canvas. In this red sea, we find the self-conscious deconstruction of the illusions that had held sway in art since the Renaissance. Harmony in Red was painted with oils on a canvas measuring 5.9 ft tall by 7.2 ft wide and is now in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
1909: Erich Heckel: Nude on a Sofa [Die Brücke; Expressionism; Germany]
German artist Erich Heckel was a member of Die Brücke (The Bridge), a group of Expressionists whose work was marked by radical social views, and an untrained but direct approach to technique, characterized by garish color schemes and bold outlines. In a manifesto of sorts, Heckel’s compatriot Ernst Kirchner stated, “Painting is the art which represents a phenomenon of feeling on a plane surface. The medium employed in painting … is color. … Today photography reproduces an object exactly. Painting, liberated from the need to do so, regains freedom of action.” Heckel’s Nude on a Sofa from 1909 (see image above) is a key work of Die Brücke, with its singing colors, mildly hedonistic image, vigorous composition and nervous, ecstatic brushwork. In a stinging feminist critique of Nude on a Sofa, Carol Duncan stated in 1973 that the nude shown sprawled in a disheveled setting exists only as a witness to “the artist’s frank sexual interests.” By displaying her nudity while covering her face, Duncan argued, the woman combines “bodily self-offering and spiritual self-defacement” in the face of male sexual power. Nude on a Sofa (also known as Reclining Nude on Striped Couch) is now in the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich, Germany.
1910: Henri Rousseau: The Dream [Naïve Art; France]
Self-taught Post-Impressionist painter Henri Rousseau never traveled outside his native France, but that did not stop him from painting 25 jungle scenes, including The Dream. He visited the zoo and the Jardin des Plantes, a combination zoo/botanical garden, in Paris, and there he found enough exotic animals and plants to fill his canvases. But Rousseau was no realist; he stylized his lions and lotus flowers into decorative motifs. In The Dream, made with oils on a canvas measuring 6.7 ft. tall by 9.8 ft. wide, a nude woman on a sofa is apparently dreaming of the jungle at night, listening to a snake charmer play his instrument while the wild beasts hide among the foliage. The surreal juxtaposition of domestic and wild elements charmed the critics and the large work was a surprise success for Rousseau, after many years of ridicule by the art world. Rousseau’s first success was also his last – he died shortly exhibiting The Dream. The Dream is now in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
1910: Henri Matisse: The Dance (II) [Fauvism; France]
Commissioned by Russian art collector Sergey Shchukin, Henri Matisse’s The Dance (II) (see first image above), has two companion pieces. The first is The Dance (I) (1909), a preliminary sketch for The Dance (II) with a similar composition but a very different color scheme and emotional resonance (see second image above). The second is Music (1910), which was also commissioned by Shchuckin and hung with The Dance in the collector’ s home until the Russian Revolution. Matisse may have borrowed his composition of five nudes dancing from the circle of five dancers in William Blake’s 1786 watercolor Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing (third image). The bold simplified color scheme and loosely drawn figures, together with the lack of genuine perspective (the dancers farthest from the viewer are the same size as the closest figures), create a sense of flatness and two-dimensionality, but the painting – the colors in particular – also generates a frenzied, primitive energy, even ecstasy, that some have likened to the orgiastic rituals depicted in Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. Scholars and art historians have long debated the meaning of the gap in the circle, where the hands of the dancers closest to us do not meet. Does it mean that there is an unresolved tension among the dancers – an incompleteness? Or, it is an invitation to the viewer to join the circle? The Dance (I), 1909, was made with oils on canvas measuring 8.5 ft. tall by 12.8 ft. wide, and is located at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The Dance (II), 1910, was made with oils on a canvas measuring 8.5 ft. tall by 12.8 ft. wide. It is now in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
1910: Wassily Kandinsky: Church in Murnau [Expressionism; Russia/Germany]
In 1910, Wassily Kandinsky’s painting was on the verge of becoming completely abstract. Church in Murnau (also referred to as The Church in Murnau, Church at Murnau and Murnau with a Church) may represent one of the last stops on the way to that destination. Kandinsky and three friends had been spending their summers in the countryside, near the picturesque town of Murnau, with the Alps as a backdrop. They were also inspired by the paintings of the Fauves that were coming out of France and the folk art of the Murnau villagers. According to on scholar, Church in Murnau and other Kandinsky works from this period are distinguished by “patches of unmixed luminous color set down flatly and side by side, compositions organized by two-dimensional structures, and a simplification of forms that verges on abstraction from the natural object being depicted.” Here, we can make out the church and its steeple, some trees and roofs, and possibly clouds or snow-capped mountains, but much of the canvas is occupied by pure shapes and patches of bright color that seem to have no representational counterpart. Church in Murnau was made with oils on a cardboard measuring 2.1 ft. tall by 1.6 ft. wide and is now located in the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus in Munich, Germany.
1910: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Self-Portrait with a Model
[Die Brücke; Expressionism; Germany]
A founding member of Die Brücke, German Expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner professed to believe in a bohemian ethic of free love and casual nudity. In Self-Portrait with a Model (also known as Self-Portrait with Model), this egalitarian philosophy clashes with Kirchner’s perception of himself as an artist. The composition highlights the relationship between the artist and his model. Kirchner thrusts his boldly-colored figure into the foreground, pushing beyond the edges of the frame and completely dominating the canvas. With his loosely buttoned robe barely covering his naked maleness, he stands, smirking, smoking a pipe and holding his palette and phallic paintbrush. Cowering in the background is the female model, rendered as submissive and weak, who sits passively, one hand covering her genitals in the style of Venus Pudica, the other hiding behind the artist. Kirchner makes it clear that he, the artist, is in control. While we perceive some sexual tension, the power imbalance undermines much of the erotic content. Self Portrait with Model was made with oils on a canvas measuring 4.9 ft. tall by 3.3 ft. wide. It is now in the Hamburger Kunsthalle in Hamburg, Germany.
1910: Pablo Picasso: Portrait of Ambroise Vollard [Cubism; France]
After Picasso and Braque invented Cubism, they explored the possibilities of this new way of making art (and of seeing) through traditional genres such as the portrait and the still life. Here, Picasso presents us with the gigantic cranium of art dealer Ambroise Vollard, as if to say, “Here is someone with a brain large enough to understand Cubism!” (Vollard was a crucial supporter of Picasso and other modernists in the early 20th Century.) As with other Cubist works, the painter breaks down the act of seeing into many small shards of color and shape that overlap, detach and multiply over the canvas. The portrait is less about presenting verisimilitude and more about engaging the viewer in the act of painting a portrait. As Jonathan Jones of The Guardian wrote, “The more you look for a picture, the more insidiously Picasso demonstrates that life is not made of pictures but of unstable relationships between artist and model, viewer and painting, self and world.” Picasso’s Portrait of Ambroise Vollard is painted with oils on a canvas measuring 3 ft tall by 2.2 ft wide and is now in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. Random Trivia: Five years later, Picasso drew a pencil portrait of the same subject, this time in a neoclassical style that may be a tribute/mockery of Ingres (see second image) The drawing is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
1911: Marc Chagall: I and the Village [Cubism/Expressionism/Fauvism; France]
Russian-Jewish artist Marc Chagall painted I and the Village about a year after he relocated to Paris from the small Russian village where he was raised. The painting represents a unique mixture of landscape, symbolism, and dream imagery. Chagall’s work shows the influence of Cubism, which dominated the Paris art world at the time, but also employs intense colors that were shunned by the Cubists. Scholars have offered many interpretations for the multiplicity of overlapping images. The dominant figures are a green-faced man with a cap who is wearing a chain with a cross and holding a glowing plant or tree (possibly the Tree of Life). The green-faced man is making eye contact with a large animal, possibly a cow or goat, that has a small goat being milked on his face, possibly to remind us of the close connections between animals and humans in Chagall’s rural village, and a Hasidic belief that animals were humanity’s link to the greater universe. Three intersecting circles may represent the sun, the orbit of the earth around the sun, and the orbit of the moon around the earth, or possibly an eclipse of the moon. In the upper register, there is a row of houses and a Russian Orthodox Catholic Church. Two of the houses are upside down, as is a woman playing the violin. A man in black carrying a scythe walks past the upside-down woman. Bright patches of red, green and blue form the palette for the center of the painting. The artist appears to have no regard for natural color or size, or even the law of gravity. This is consistent with a statement of Chagall’s, “For me a painting is a surface covered with representations of things … in which logic and illustration have no importance.” I and the Village was made with oils on a canvas measuring 6.3 ft. tall by 5 ft. wide. It is now in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
1911: Georges Braque: The Portuguese (Le Portugais) [Cubism; France]
Some critics have stated unequivocally that French Cubist Georges Braque’s The Portuguese represents a man with a guitar. More people might agree with the statement that The Portuguese is a representative example of the art movement known as Analytic Cubism. One of the goals of the Analytic Cubism developed by Braque and Pablo Picasso in 1908-1912 was to present the world as we actually see it – all sides, top, bottom, inside and out – simultaneously. To achieve that goal, they deconstructed objects and flattened the fragments on the canvas, at the same time downplaying color to emphasize structure. What we see are complex, multiple views of objects and figures, presented as overlapping monochromatic planes. In some cases, it is difficult or impossible to determine what objects or figures have been deconstructed. At the same time, Cubists are drawing attention to the two-dimensionality of the canvas, rejecting attempts at creating three-dimensional illusions through perspective, foreshortening and modeling. By stenciling the letters “D BAL” (possibly a fragment of ‘Grand Bal’, or Grand Ball) directly on the canvas, Braque is drawing our attention to its flat surface. He is also, intentionally or not, laying the groundwork for collage, which was the basis for Synthetic Cubism, which Braque and Picasso developed beginning in 1912. The Portuguese was made with oils on a canvas measuring 3.8 ft. tall by 2.7 ft. wide, and is now located in the Kunstmuseum Basel in Basel, Switzerland.
1911: Henri Matisse: The Red Studio (L’Atelier Rouge) [Fauvism; France]
French artist Henri Matisse, co-founder of an art movement that became known as Fauvism, depicted his art studio in The Red Studio (L’Atelier Rouge) as a place where time stands still, symbolized by the grandfather clock with no hands. The only elements of the room that are pictured in somewhat realistic colors are Matisse’s own works of art – paintings, sculptures and ceramics – and the means of creation, in this case a box of crayons at the lower left – within his (and our) easy reach. As Robert Hughes notes in The Shock of the New, the rest of the space is unreal, soaked in a flat red that “describes itself aggressively as fiction.” The room’s furnishings and elements of the architecture are defined by scratchings in the red overlay to expose the lighter-colored underpainting. The left corner of the room does not exist except as it is defined by the paintings on the walls, which seem to approach the place where the corner should be. The flat surface at the left is only a possibility of a window. Hughes again: “The Red Studio is a poem about how painting refers to itself: how art nourishes itself from other art and how, with enough conviction, art can form its own republic of pleasure, a parenthesis within the real world – a paradise.” Matisse made The Red Studio with oils on a canvas measuring 5.9 ft. tall by 7.2 ft. wide. It is now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
1911: Pablo Picasso: The Accordionist [Analytic Cubism; France]
Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque spent the summer of 1911 in Céret, in the French Pyrenees, where they both produced some of the most abstract examples of Analytic Cubism, including Picasso’s The Accordionist, which is so abstract that one of its owners apparently took it for a landscape. By this stage, Picasso had abandoned any attempt to represent objects through volume or perspective; he has also reduced his palette to a near monochrome to emphasize the broken fragments of painted space in various shapes and sizes that fill up the canvas. The effect is to make us peer at the canvas, trying to make an accordionist (or any familiar object) appear by imposing our will on the images before our eyes. Art historians tell us that there is a darker area representing a man’s face or head near the top of the painting, an arm resting on a chair on the right, and, in the center, several fingers playing three round buttons on an accordion. The Accordionist was painted with oils on a canvas measuring 4.3 ft tall by 2.9 ft wide and is now in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.
1910-1912: Fernand Léger: The Wedding [Cubism; France]
The Wedding is a large-scale Cubist painting by French artist Fernand Léger. We see a large white central wave that may represent the bride in her wedding dress, flanked on both sides by processions of overlapping guests – a high density of small fragments of faces, limbs, clothing – and snatches of landscape features such as trees and houses in the background. These representational elements mix (and contrast) with large plane surfaces, modular plastic swatches and, in contrast to Cubist godfathers Braque and Picasso, blocks of pure color. The Wedding was made with oils on a canvas measuring 8.4 ft. tall by 6.7 ft. wide. It is now located in the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.
1912: Marcel Duchamp: Nude Descending a Staircase #2
[Cubism/Conceptual Art; France]
The invention of photography gave scientists a new way to study the movement of humans and other animals, dissecting their actions into fragments of a second to reveal what could not be seen otherwise (see second image above). It is likely that French Modernist Marcel Duchamp was inspired by photographs of this sort, as well as by the the Cubists and the Italian Futurists, when he painted Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (see first image above). Unfortunately, perhaps because Duchamp’s work did not fit neatly into preexisting categories, he found rejection on all sides. The Cubists at the 1912 Paris Salon des Indépendants rejected the painting because it was “too Futurist” and because they felt that painting a nude descending the stairs was “ridiculous.” When Duchamp exhibited the painting at the 1913 Armory Show in New York, the criticism was cacophonous, with one critic calling it “an explosion in a shingle factory.” An art magazine held a contest to ‘find the nude’, and even Teddy Roosevelt registered his disgust. In fact, the painting is very much within the Cubist tradition, with its monochrome palette and deconstruction of forms. What sets the piece apart is the addition of the element of movement. Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, made with oils on a canvas measuring 4.8 ft. tall by 2.9 ft. wide, is now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
1912: Franz Marc: Tiger [Expressionism; Germany]
\German Expressionist painter Franz Marc played an important role in the development of abstract art. Marc was a founding member, with Wassily Kandinsky, of Der Blaue Reiter group, which was intensely concerned about color and, inspired by Van Gogh and Gauguin, believed that certain colors could be linked to specific emotional and spiritual states. In Tiger (also known as The Tiger), Marc explores the theory of color with luminous reds, purples and greens in the background, while the yellow and black of the tiger signal ominous imminent aggression. But Marc is also indebted to Cézanne geometric shapes and the Analytic Cubism of Picasso and Braque. Shape and color exist in tension with one another: here, the angular blocks of the tiger’s body conceal it among the similar background shapes, while the colors set it apart and thrust it forward. The Tiger was painted with oils on a canvas 3.6 ft. high by 3.7 ft. wide and is now located in the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus in Munich, Germany. Franz Marc died in 1916 at the Battle of Verdun.
1912: Piet Mondrian: Apple Tree in Bloom
[Cubism/De Stijl/Neo-Plasticism; The Netherlands/France]
Dutch artist Piet Mondrian painted Apple Tree in Bloom (also known as Flowering Apple Tree, Blossoming Apple Tree, Apple Tree in Blossom and Apple Tree in Flower) in 1912 (see first image above). In this and another work from the same year, Mondrian experimented with the elements of Cubism, on the way to embracing complete abstraction later in his career. The Apple Tree is a far cry from the representational Red Tree of just four years earlier (see second image above). The painting is not completely abstract – but without the title, it would be impossible to determine what external object the shapes and lines represent. As with other Cubist works, color is reduced to a minimum – here to green, ocher, gray and purple. In describing the work, one art historian pointed out that a touch of ocher in the center “highlights two curvilinear signs that are more closely connected than the others, as though in an effort to hold the space together.” Note that the emptiness of the corners of the canvas converts the composition from a rectangle to an oval. Instead of painting an apple tree from nature, one critic tells us, Mondrian depicts “an autonomous segment of reality created by the artist in conformity with laws of its own and unrestricted by surrounding actuality.” According to another scholar, when Mondrian reduced the tree from a recognizable form to curved lines on a canvas, he was not engaged in a negative process of abandoning the interesting and the particular, but a “positive process of seeing through the particular to the universal.” Apple Tree in Bloom was made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.5 ft. by 3.5 ft. and is now located in the Gemeentemuseum in the Hague, The Netherlands.
1912: Emil Nolde: The Prophet [Expressionism; Germany]
German Expressionist artist Emil Nolde underwent a spiritual transformation in 1909, after which he devoted much of his work to religious images. The Prophet, a woodcut from 1912, shows the haunted face of a true believer, possibly Jesus himself. The textured grain of the wood combines effectively with the coarsely gouged-out areas and jagged lines to show the prophet’s hollow eyes, furrowed brow, sunken cheeks and solemn expression. Approximately 50 prints measuring 12.6 in. high by 8.7 in. wide were made from the original woodcut; they are located in museums and private collections around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in Los Angeles, California, and the British Museum in London.
1912: Emil Nolde: St. Mary of Egypt Among Sinners
[Expressionism; Die Brücke Germany]
The legendary St. Mary of Egypt, an early Christian saint, was a prostitute in Alexandria. After taking a ship to Jerusalem she converted to Christianity and went to the desert to live a life of abstinence. Nolde painted four canvases regarding her, with the general title Legend: St. Mary of Egypt. Three of the paintings form a type of triptych: the left panel, In the Port of Alexandria, showing her life as a prostitute (now usually referred to as St. Mary of Egypt Among Sinners) is the most-highly regarded of the set, with its monstrous depiction of her customers in the bold colors and primitive styles used by Nolde and other members of the artists’ movement Die Brücke (The Bridge). The center panel is The Conversion (second image, and the largest of the three) and the right panel is Death in the Desert (third image). St. Mary of Egypt Among Sinners was painted with oils on a canvas measuring 2.8 ft tall by 3.2 ft wide and the three panels are now in the Hamburger Kunsthalle in Hamburg, Germany, Note: Some sources date the painting to c. 1910.
1913: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Five Women on the Street [Expressionism; Germany]
The members of Die Brücke (The Bridge), including German Expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, moved from Dresden to Berlin in 1908, but found little success in the larger city, leading to the break-up of the group in 1913. Kirchner, feeling what he described as “agonizing restlessness”, turned his attention to the Berlin streets, which inspired a number of important paintings, including Five Women on the Street, from 1913. At the time, streetwalking prostitutes were a common sight on Berlin’s streets, a phenomenon that Kirchner documents by placing the women on a narrow flattened space, upon which they parade by in rhythm, like dancers on a stage, or figures in an ancient frieze. Kirchner depicts these prostitutes not as predators or degenerates but as cool, aloof fashion models, wearing plumed hats, extravagant scarves and sleek, black jackets and skirts. Despite the theatricality, an unsavory tone pervades. Five Women on the Street was made with oils on a canvas measuring 3.9 ft. tall by 2.9 ft. wide. It is now in the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany.
1913: Umberto Boccioni: Unique Forms of Continuity in Space [Futurism; Italy]
Futurism was a major Italian art movement of the first half of the 20th Century. Futurists wanted to take a radical step way from Classical and Renaissance precedents to embrace instead the speed and progress of the modern age. Italian Futurist Umberto Boccioni was trained as a painter, but he occasionally experimented with new forms of sculpture, the most highly-regarded of which is Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (see images above). The sculpture depicts a faceless, armless figure – human, super-human or man-machine – striding dynamically through the air. Boccioni wanted to show the ‘synthetic continuity’ of motion in contrast to ‘analytical discontinuity’ represented by Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, for example. To achieve this goal, Boccioni sculpted not only the moving figure but also the space it moves through; we see curling tongues of the atmosphere itself as they flare out around the body of the figure. Boccioni made a plaster cast of the statue in 1913, but a bronze cast was never made in his lifetime (he died in 1916). The original plaster cast is located at the Museu de Arte Contemporânea in São Paulo, Brazil. After Boccioni’s death, a number of bronze casts were made from the original plaster sculpture of Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, each measuring 3.6 ft. tall by 3 ft. wide by 15.5 in. deep. The casts are located as follows:
(1) Collection of Gianni Mattioli, Milan (c. 1925-1926);
(2) Museum of Modern Art, New York (1931 cast) (without the base);
(3) Museo del Novecento, Milan (1931 cast) (without the base);
(4) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1949 cast);
(5) Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (1949 cast);
(6) Museu de Arte Contemporânea, São Paulo, Brazil (1960 cast);
(7) Collection of Paolo Marinotti, Milan (1972 cast); and
(8) Tate Modern, London (1972 cast).
Random Trivia: In 1998, the Italian government chose Unique Forms of Continuity in Space as the image on the back of the 20-cent Euro coin.
1913: Wassily Kandinsky: Composition VII
[Expressionism/Abstract Art; Russia/Germany]
Did Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky have synethesia? In a famous anecdote, Kandinsky attended a performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin and saw colors associated with the musical sounds, after which he decided to become a painter. For Kandinsky, artists’ attempts to represent objects and figures in their works of art were preventing colors from being able to express emotions and bring about spiritual enlightenment. He sought to release colors from the prison of representational art and allow them to sing. It is not surprising, given Kandinsky’s belief in the connection between color and sound, that many of his works are titled “Composition” or “Improvisation.” Composition VII, made with oils on a canvas measuring 6.6 ft. tall by 9.9 ft. wide, was Kandinsky’s largest statement of his theories before World War I (see image above). Although the casual viewer may see only random lines and patches of color, Composition VII was the result of careful planning – Kandinsky made over 30 preparatory paintings and drawings before he finally began the final piece. From a central eye-like oval spreads a chaotic maelstrom of colliding shapes and colors with no clearly identifiable objects. There are echoes of religious themes from earlier works – the Deluge, the Last Judgment – but the overall sense is of Armageddon destroying this world to allow for the birth of a Utopian future. In Composition VII, Kandinsky has finally shed convention and produced a pure painting. Kandinsky’s painting is now located in the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.
1913: Giorgio de Chirico: The Uncertainty of the Poet [Metaphysical Art; Italy]
The Uncertainty of the Poet is an example of Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico’s ‘metaphysical art’, which sought to create images that evoke, in his words, “the profound and solitary joy of revelation” (see image above). Like the Surrealists who would later claim him as their godfather, de Chirico presents ordinary objects in irrational relationships with their settings and each other. The Uncertainty of the Poet, with its twisting marble torso, bunch of bananas and distant train, tells no story, but creates visual poetry that is reminiscent of the imagery of dreams. Some critics have pointed out that de Chirico sets up a contrast between timeless objects (the marble statue) and fleeting phenomena (the decaying fruit), although one commentator has suggested that what appears to be a damaged statute is actually a headless, limbless creature made of living flesh. To increase the sense of unreality, de Chirico deliberately breaks the rules of perspective: there is no logical connection between the building with the arches and the low brick wall behind it, for example; the train appears to be very distant, but it also seems very close to the end of the building, which is not far away. The train itself appears to be riding on the brick wall, unless there is a more distant trestle and train track that happens to be the same height as the wall. Most confusing of all is the top of a sailing vessel that seems to be in the same plane as the train, yet there is no other sign of water. The 1913 oils-on-canvas painting measures 3.5 ft. tall by 3.1 ft. wide and is located at the Tate Modern in London.
1912-1914: Robert Delaunay: The Windows (Simultaneous Windows) (series of 22)
As French artist Robert Delaunay pushed the boundaries of Cubism into an exploration of color and vision that he called Simultaneism (but poet Guillaume Apollinaire’s term Orphism – from Orpheus – caught on instead), he began painting works along common themes, creating series that contain multiple individuals. These include the Saint-Sévrin series (1909–10); the City series (1909–11); the Eiffel Tower series (1909–12); the City of Paris series (1911–12); the Window series (1912–14); the Cardiff Team series (1913); and the Circular Forms series (1913). In the Windows series, comprised of 22 or 23 paintings and sketches created mostly in 1912, with a few in 1913 and 1914, Delaunay approaches the level of complete abstraction. The only representational object in most of the works in the series is a central triangle denoting the Eiffel Tower. Among overlaid swathes of translucent contrasting and complementary colors, yellow predominates, perhaps a reference to the Parisian sunshine streaming through an open window. In each of the Windows series, Delaunay seeks to depict the process of vision and the ways that light structures vision. Many of the series are in private collections, but a number are on exhibit in museums around the world:
(1) Windows Open Simultaneously (First Part, Third Motif) (1912), made with oils on a canvas measuring 18 in. tall by 14.8 in. wide, is at the Tate Modern in London (first image above):
(2) Simultaneous Windows on the City (1912), made with oils on a canvas measuring 18 in. tall by 15.7 in. wide, is now in the Hamburger Kunsthalle in Hamburg, Germany (second image above);
(3) Windows Open Simultaneously (First Part, Third Motif) (1912), made with oils on a canvas measuring 1.9 ft. tall by 4.1 ft. wide, is now in the Guggenheim Museum in New York (third image above) ;
(4) Simultaneous Windows (2nd Motif, 1st Part) (1912) is in the Guggenheim Museum in New York;
(5) The Three Windows, the Tower and the Wheel (1912) is in the Guggenheim Museum in New York;
(6) Windows (1912) is in the Museum of Modern Art in New York;
(7) The Window (1912) is in the Musée de Grenoble in Grenoble, France; and
(8) A Window (1912) is in the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.
1913-1914: Jacob Epstein: The Rock Drill [Vorticism; UK]
American-born British artist Jacob Epstein created Rock Drill, part-sculpture, part-Readymade, in 1913-1914 (see first image above). Measuring 6.75 ft. tall by 4.6 ft. wide, Rock Drill consisted of a robot-like carved plaster figure that sits astride an actual US-made rock drill. The plaster figure had a small figure nestled in its abdomen. Although Epstein did not sign the Vorticist Manifesto, the movement adopted Rock Drill as the pinnacle of Vorticist art. At the time of its exhibition at the Brighton City Art Gallery from December 1913 to January 1914, Rock Drill was hailed as a celebration of modern machinery, power and masculine virility. Epstein destroyed the sculpture in 1915, however, and in 1916 reworked the torso into a bronze sculpture, Torso in Metal from Rock Drill, which critics described as defenseless and melancholic. The bronze torso is now in the Tate Britain in London (see second image above). In 1940, Epstein described Rock Drill retrospectively in negative terms as “the armed sinister figure of to-day and to-morrow .. [with] no humanity.” In 1974, Ken Cook and Ann Christopher reconstructed the original Rock Drill, which is now located in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, in Birmingham, England (see third image, above). Random Trivia: Star Wars fans have noted the resemblance between the figure in Rock Drill and General Grievous and his battle droids.
1913-1914: Oskar Kokoschka: The Bride of the Wind [Expressionism; Austria]
The Bride of the Wind (also known as Bride of the Wind or The Tempest), by Austrian Expressionist Oskar Kokoshka, shows two lovers in a strange bed reminiscent of a giant seashell, apparently outdoors – mountains loom in the background, and something moon-like sits in the sky. There are swirling masses of paint surrounding the couple. Are they in a boat in a storm? In their bed in a room? Or do the violent brushstrokes tell us of the inner thoughts of the man who cannot sleep, or the dreams of his partner? There is a powerful turbulence expressed by the forms and colors in what is considered Kokoschka’s masterpiece. The Bride of the Wind is considered an allegorical painting, but it is also a double portrait of the artist (on the left, wide awake and staring) and his lover Alma Mahler (on the right, sleeping and beautiful). Critics disagree about whether Kokoshka painted The Bride of the Wind before or after Mahler left him and he became creepily obsessed with her, to the point of commissioning a life-size mannequin in her image. The Bride of the Wind was made with oils on a canvas measuring 5.9 ft. tall by 7.2 ft. wide and is now located at the Kunstmuseum Basel in Basel, Switzerland.
c. 1914: Odilon Redon: The Cyclops [Symbolism/Post-Impressionism; France]
Instead of trying to recreate nature, French painter Odilon Redon took the visions of his imagination and applied the laws of nature to them, or as Redon put it, “putting – as far as possible – the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible.” In The Cyclops, Redon reworks the myth of one-eyed Polyphemus, making him a shy giant observing (instead of eating) the object of his affection, the naiad Galatea, as she sleeps naked among the flowers. Redon’s style, if not his subject matter, draws much inspiration from the Impressionists. Scholars are in significant disagreement about the date of the work. In an unscientific poll of Internet sources (including several books), I found the following: (1) 1898 – four votes, including Wikipedia; (2) 1898-1900 – four votes; (3) 1904 – one vote; and (4) 1914 – 14 votes, including the Kröller-Müller Museum label. Based on these results, I have listed the date as c. 1914. The Cyclops was made with oils on cardboard mounted on wood panel measuring 2.2 ft. tall by 1.7 ft. wide. The painting is now in the Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller in Otterlo, The Netherlands.
1914: Giorgio de Chirico: The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street
[Metaphysical Art; Italy]
Born in Greece to Italian parents and schooled in Germany, Giorgio de Chirico spent much of his adulthood in Turin, Italy. When World War I broke out, he enlisted in the Italian Army, but spent the war on the home front, where he could develop his theories about painting. With Carlo Carrà, he founded the short-lived metaphysical art movement, a precursor to surrealism. Melancholy and Mystery of a Street is a typical work for de Chirico’s metaphysical period. He presents the viewer with an Italian square that looks real and unreal at the same time. A girl, in silhouette, rolls a hoop past a vehicle of some kind with open doors toward the source of the light, but also toward an ominous shadow of what may be a friend, an enemy or just a statue. De Chirico deliberately chooses very different perspectival vanishing points for the buildings on the right and left, and while the only source of light appears to be the sun coming from the top of the painting, there is perhaps a second, unseen light source illuminating the open-doored vehicle. The overall effect is that of a dream (or nightmare), an effect that the surrealists would adopt in their works. Melancholy and Mystery of a Street was made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.8 ft. high by 2.3 ft. wide; it is currently in a private collection.
1915: Juan Gris (José Victoriano González-Pérez): The Breakfast Table
Spanish-born but living and working in Paris, Juan Gris is known as the Third Cubist, after Braque and Picasso. Gris’s still life The Breakfast Table (also known as Breakfast or The Breakfast), from 1915, is an example of synthetic cubism. Cubism’s first phase, analytical cubism, involved jettisoning the notion of single-point perspective and breaking down the subject into flat planes to allow the viewer to view it from all perspectives. Synthetic cubism, which began in about 1912, involved the building up of forms from their constituent elements, often with the use of collage. Gris applied a scientific rationalism and classical sense of order to his synthetic cubist works. Every element of the painting was considered with classical precision: line, shape, tone, color and pattern were carefully refined to create an interlocking arrangement free from any unnecessary decoration or detail. He also drew from Matisse and Delaunay in employing bright and harmonious colors in novel and daring combinations, rejecting the monochromatic palettes of Braque and Picasso. So while many of the objects on The Breakfast Table are recognizable (table top, coffee pot, wine glass, newspaper), the use of color shifts the focus from the nature of the items to the structure of the image. As one scholar has noted, none of the forms needs to be recognizable in specific detail, but each has been played with inventively and the shapes have been colored so as to produce a combination of forms and colors that would not have been reached without the preliminary puzzle-solving of analytical cubism, but which now branches away from it. The Breakfast Table was made with oils and charcoal on a canvas measuring 3 ft. tall by 2.4 ft. wide. It is now located in the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.
1915: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Self-Portrait as a Soldier [Expressionism; Germany]
The trauma of World War I pervaded Europe. In order to avoid combat service, German Expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner volunteered to serve as a driver for an artillery unit. He was declared unfit for service due to medical problems and was sent to a facility in Halle to recuperate. It was there, while meditating on the horrors of war and his own fears of mutilation, that he painted Self-Portrait as a Soldier. In the painting, Kirchner stands in his studio wearing the uniform of the Mansfelder Field Artillery Regiment No. 75, which was based in Halle. His eyes lack pupils and reflect the blue of the uniform. His right hand has been severed from his arm, leaving a bloody stump. A nude female model stands like a statue and an unfinished painting hangs on the wall. Kirchner’s left hand appears to be grasping or resting on a red and white object. The severed right hand is a metaphor for the effect of the war on Kirchner’s creativity and artistic imagination. Instead of standing confidently before his model smoking a pipe as in Self-Portrait with Model from 1907, the artist here is creatively and metaphorically emasculated, green-faced and smoking a cigarette, and seems to have no connection to the wood-like model. The style of the painting is similar to that of the Berlin street paintings – primitive and sculptural, with broken, angular lines and short crosshatched brushstrokes. Self-Portrait as a Soldier was made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.3 ft. tall by 2 ft. wide. It is located in the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio.
1915: Amedeo Modigliani: Paul Guillaume – Novo Pilota [Expressionism; Italy/France]
In 1915, Italian-Jewish artist Amedeo Modigliani was living in Paris and trying to make a living as a painter. He was 30 years old and he had five years to live. At the same time, French art dealer Paul Guillaume was 23 and was already an established dealer of African art. Beginning in 1914, Guillaume became the first dealer to purchase works by Modigliani; he would continue in that role until 1916. Modigliani painted four portraits of his patron, including the 1915 portrait with the subtitle “Novo Pilota” or “New Helmsman.” The portrait, also known simply as Paul Guillaume or Portrait of Paul Guillaume, also includes Guillaume’s name, the inscription “Stella Maris” or “Star of the Sea”, a Star of David and a swastika, which would have been recognized as a Sanskrit symbol meaning ‘good omen.’ Modigliani sought to portray Guillaume as a heroic defender of contemporary art – a young, well-dressed man who is assured but casual, with a black suit, white shirt, deep blue time, hat, leather gloves and cigarette held carelessly, bringing a touch of the dandy to the likeness. Paul Guillaume – Novo Pilota was made with oils on cardboard mounted on cradled plywood measuring 3.4 ft. tall by 2.5 ft. wide. It is now located in the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris.
1915: Umberto Boccioni: The Charge of the Lancers [Futurism; Italy]
The Futurists sought to wrench Italy from her languid nostalgia for its Classical and Renaissance past into the dynamic reality of the industrial present. When World War I broke out, Umberto Boccioni and other members of the Futurist movement in Italy put down their brushes and took up politics, as they argued in favor of Italy’s entry into the war against Austria. When Boccioni returned to the studio in the winter of 1914-1915, war was still on his mind and he produced his only war-themed work, The Charge of the Lancers. A collage with its roots in Synthetic Cubism, the work begins with actual newspaper headlines about La Guerra. The scene depicted is a cavalry charge against armed infantry soldiers. The diagonal composition shows a horse in the foreground, with numerous echoes of the form behind, creating what Ester Coen termed “a compact but indistinct swarm.” The lances of the horseman intersect with the bayonets of the soldiers, while other soldiers lying in trenches fire guns. As with many Cubist works, there are few bright colors. Instead, a repetition of metallic grays increases the sense of drama and tension, as the insistent rhythm and violent action of the cavalry leads to a decisive clash. The Charge of the Lancers was made with tempera and collage on cardboard measuring 19.7 in. high by 12.5 in. wide. It is located in the private collection of Riccardo and Magda Jucker in Milan, Italy. Random Trivia: Ironically, a year after this painting of riders on horses, Boccioni was killed after being thrown by his horse and trampled.
1915: Kazimir Malevich: Black Suprematic Square (Black Square)
After Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, modernist painters looked for new ways to express their dissatisfaction with artistic tradition. Cubists disassembled the three-dimensional form and reassembled it as two-dimensional planes. Others ignored perspective, used primitive techniques of drawing and composition, or altered color schemes to emphasize their unreality. None of this was enough for Russian painter Kazimir Malevich. He believed that painters needed to reject nature altogether and focus instead on geometry, rationality and “the supremacy of pure feeling.” According to Suprematism, as Malevich named his movement, no painter should try to represent the three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional canvas. Art is not a conduit for appreciating the natural world; it is a world unto itself. Art is not a representation of something else; it is a representation of itself. All Malevich’s Suprematist paintings represent this philosophy, but none so much as Black Square (also known as Black Suprematic Square) from 1915, a type of painted manifesto (see image above). In the center of a white square measuring 2.6 feet on each side, Malevich painted a black square – what he called “the zero of form.” The idea was simple, bold, and highly controversial. The color that is no color painted over the color that is all colors. Over the years, Malevich made many other paintings, but he returned three more times to the black square like a touchstone: each one slightly different in size, texture and hue. One of these later versions recently sold for $1,000,000 to a Russian buyer, who donated it to the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. The original Black Square is in the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.
1916: George Grosz: Suicide [Expressionism; Germany]
German Expressionist George Grosz was best known for his satirical studies of German society. Suicide was made in 1916 in Berlin, after Grosz had been discharged from the army for medical reasons. The experience of war had filled him with disgust for mankind. He said later that his work from this period “expressed my despair, hate and disillusionment.” In Suicide, we see a well-dressed man with a cane, having presumably committed suicide, lying in the street, his skull emerging from his face. On his left is a ghostly apparition, possibly his soul. On his right is a red dog. In death, the man with the cane seems to be reaching for the foot of a man running out of the frame on the right (possibly a criminal, based on the dropped gun). In the right top corner, a topless, one-armed prostitute – lit up by the streetlamp so that with the missing limb she appears to be a marble Venus – holds a flower and stares at another suicide victim hanging from a lamppost, while her client, a bloated businessman, waits in her room. Another red dog appears to follow the criminal over the red sidewalk. In the upper center, an out-of-perspective church points a steeple heavenward. The windows in a nearby building look like crosses. The nocturnal scene pulsates with dark and lighter reds and portrays a wartime Berlin with no moral compass and no hope. Suicide was made with oils on canvas measuring 3.2 ft. tall by 2.5 ft. wide and is now located in the Tate Modern in London.
1916: Henri Matisse: The Piano Lesson [Fauvism/Cubism; France]
Matisse’s The Piano Lesson is a spare but rich composition dominated by the color gray (see first image above). It is the closest Matisse ever came to embracing the Cubist ideology. When Matisse painted The Piano Lesson, World War I was raging and some of the artist’s relatives were under German occupation in northern France. We see Matisse’s son Pierre (who is painted as younger than he really was) sitting at the piano studying his lesson. A burning candle and the “sharp spear of a metronome” sit on the piano. As one art historian wrote, “the violent point [of the metronome] is repeated in the triangular fall of shadow that obliterates a quarter of” Pierre’s stern, staring face, while either the candle or the sun lights up a narrow swath of green lawn outside a window. The two female figures are actually inanimate works of art. In the lower left, we see Decorative Figure (1908), a curvaceous Matisse sculpture, which appears to be listening to (or embodying) the music (see third image above). In the upper right, what appears to be a stern piano teacher is revealed to be a Matisse painting, Woman on a High Stool (1914) that is hanging on the wall (see fourth image above). Grayness dominates and oppresses the picture: the same gray colors the view outside the window, the walls and floor of the living room, and even the torso of the woman on the stool. Matisse treats the view through the window and the view of a painting hanging on the wall as equivalent. One scholar has noted that the contrast of the sculpture and the painting create “a contrast of sensuality and hard work.” Another critic has noted that by incising and stippling the window frame to produce a pitted quality, Matisse suggests the eroding effects of light or time, a theme reiterated by the metronome and burning candle. Another theme (or a theme within the theme of the passing of time) is that of music, and by extension, of artistic creation generally. The curves of the music stand and the ironwork of the balustrade – a marked contrast from the painting’s severe interlocking triangles and rectangles – visually embody the sinuous curves of melody and harmony. The Piano Lesson, was made with oils on a canvas measuring 8 ft. tall by 7 ft. wide, and is now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Random Trivia: Matisse revisited the theme and setting in a 1917 painting called The Music Lesson (see second image above). The piano is the same and Woman on a High Stool is hanging on the wall, but the tone and mood (and palette) has gone from gray to happy-family-rainbow.
1880-1917: Auguste Rodin: The Gates of Hell [Impressionism; France]
In 1880, the French government commissioned Auguste Rodin to design pair of brass doors for a new decorative arts museum in Paris, based on Dante’s Divine Comedy. Five years earlier, Rodin had visited Florence, where he had studied Lorenzo Ghiberti’s doors for the Florence Baptistery, dubbed The Gates of Paradise. Rodin conceived an elaborate sculpture based on Dante’s Inferno, to be known as The Gates of Hell. He imagined a Hell with no gravity, which would allow him more freedom in choosing positions and postures for his sculpted figures. When the plans for the decorative museum were put on hold indefinitely, Rodin decided to keep working on the project, which was unfinished at the time of his death in 1917. Among the figures are the originals for The Thinker (see detail in fourth image above), The Kiss and The Three Shades, all of which Rodin made for The Gates but also enlarged into independent pieces. Over the 37 years that he worked on The Gates of Hell, Rodin moved away from the idea of depicting specific stories from the Inferno and began to focus on expressing universal truths and powerful emotions through his figures (see detail in third image, above). After Rodin’s death, the plaster pieces were assembled to produce a version of The Gates of Hell, measuring 19.7 ft. tall by 13.1 ft. wide by 3.3 ft. deep, with 186 figures. The plaster original is now in the Musée d’Orsay (see first image, above), which is, ironically, at the same location as the never-built decorative arts museum. No bronze casts of The Gates of Hell were made in Rodin’s lifetime. The first two bronzes were cast in 1926-1928 and are now in the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia (see detail in third image above) and the Musée Rodin in Paris (see detail in fourth image above). Six other bronze casts now exist, including one in the Kunsthaus Zürich, cast in 1949 (see second image, above).
1915–1917: Egon Schiele: Mother with Two Children [Expressionism; Austria]
Austrian artist Egon Schiele’s relationship with his mother was complex. In a number of paintings of mothers and their children, Schiele depicts the mother as either dead or alive but corpse-like. Mother with Two Children (also known as Mother and Two Children and Mother and Two Children III) is considered a relatively cheerful family portrait for which Schiele’s own mother posed. Despite the bright orange blankets around the children and their vivid faces, healthy bodies and colorful clothes (which recall the Vienna Secessionists), the mother is gaunt and gray, and separated from the children, so that one has to reach out to her. According to scholars, the two children constitute a “prototypical Schiele pairing, representing two antithetical and yet complementary responses to life: the one on the left passive, asleep, sightless; the other active, awake, a ‘seer’.” The exhausted mother fades into the background; she exists only to passively nurture the lives she has created. The distance between the mother and children may indicate Schiele’s need to distance himself from the oppressive mother figure and find strength instead in the artistic impulse represented by the colorful clothing of the children. Mother and Two Children was made with oils on a canvas measuring 4.9 ft. tall by 5.2 ft. wide. It is now in the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere in Vienna.
1917: Egon Schiele: The Embrace (The Loving; Lovers (II); Couple (II))
A protege of Gustav Klimt and together with Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka, a member of the Vienna Secession, Austrian Expressionist painter Egon Schiele was known (and was notorious) for making sexually explicit works of art featuring himself, girls and young women, and his model/mistress Valerie Neuzil. After Schiele’s marriage to Edith Harms in 1915, his work gradually became more concerned with love and intimacy than the objectification of sexual acts. The Embrace, from 1917, shows a nude couple, presumably Schiele and his wife, in a tender moment. Neither face is visible, but the way the woman has wrapped her arms around her lover expresses a deep tenderness. A light-colored ruffled blanket frames the contrasting light and dark bodies, and the woman’s abundant dark hair overlaps the man’s shorter dark hair. The couple on the bed seems to float against the yellow background. The Embrace, made with oils on a canvas measuring 3.2 ft. tall by 5.5 ft. wide, is now located in the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere in Vienna. Sadly, a year after Schiele painted The Embrace, Edith, six months pregnant, died in the flu epidemic of 1918. Egon Schiele died of the same illness three days later, at age 28.
1918: Kazimir Malevich: Suprematist Composition: White on White
After shaking up the art world with his Black Square (1915), Russian Suprematist Kazimir Malevich created a series of paintings in which a tilted white square was painted an a slightly differently colored background. Each image was titled Suprematist Composition: White on White (see images above). In addition to anticipating Minimalism by several decades, the White on White series embodied the Suprematist intention to free viewers from the prison of pictorialism, the idea that what is on the canvas must in some way represent a reality in the world outside. Reducing picture to a bare minimum allowed Malevich to dispense with depth, volume and even color, but not the act of creation. As one critic noted, White on White is not impersonal because the trace of the artist’s hand is visible in the richly textured paint surface, the subtle variations of white and the delicate brushwork. As another commented, “The imprecise outlines of the asymmetrical square generate a feeling of infinite space rather than definite borders.” This freedom reflected the optimism that Malevich and many others had in 1918, a year after the Russian Revolution, when they believed they were building a new society where materialism allowed for spiritual freedom. As Malevich said in the program to a 1919 exhibition of his work, “Swim in the white free abyss, infinity is before you.” In fact, it was Malevich’s intent to make the top square seem as if it were floating above the canvas, literally taking flight within the new freedom. The version of Suprematist Composition: White on White in the second image was made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.6 ft. square and is now located in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I have been unable to determine the dimensions or location of the version in the first image.
c. 1875-1920: Unknown Artist(s): Nkisi Nkondi Nail Figures [Kongo; Dem. Rep. of Congo]
At least as far back as the 16th Century and into the early 20th Century, religious leaders of the Kongo peoples who lived in what is now Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola in Central Africa utilized carved figures known as Nkisi Nkondi (also known as Nail Figures or Power Figures) to aid the villagers with their spiritual and physical needs. The figures, usually but not always male, were used to protect the village, prove guilt or innocence, heal sickness, end disasters, take revenge and settle legal disputes. The figures obtained their supernatural power from medicinal substances deposited into cavities carved into the head or stomach of the statue. The religious specialists, or nganga, who made the figures often used reflective glass for the eyes and medicine cavity covers. When a particular result was achieved or agreement reached, the parties would drive a nail or other sharp object into the figure. (The earliest known confirmed use of nails for the figures was in 1864.) The figures’ mouths are usually open to allow them speak the truth, and their expressions and gestures are usually aggressive, to alert viewers that they have the potential to hunt down wrongdoers (the word ‘nkondi’ comes from the verb ‘to hunt’). Six examples of Nkisi Nkondi figures are shown above:
(1) Nkisi Nkondi, made by Yombe people in present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo with wood, iron and ceramic; measuring 3.8 ft. tall, late 19th century-1904, now in the Ethnological Museum in Berlin;
(2) Nkisi Nkondi (female), made by Vili people, late 19th Century, now in the Birmingham Museum of Art in Birmingham, Alabama;
(3) Nkisi Nkondi, made by Kongo people in what is now Democratic Republic of Congo, with wood, iron, glass mirror, resin and pigment, measuring 2.8 ft. tall by 1.1 ft. wide by 0.9 ft. deep, now in the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York;
(4) Nkisi Nkondi, from what is now Democratic Republic of Congo, c. 1880-1920, now in the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania;
(5) Power Figure made by Kongo people in present-day Democratic Republic of Congo with wood, natural fibers, nails, glass and metal, measuring 15.75 in. tall, 9.75 in. wide, 7.25 in. deep, early 20th century, now at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in Minneapolis, Minnesota; and
(6) Nkisi N’Kondi, made by Kongo people in present-day Democratic Republic of Congo or Angola with wood, paint, metal, resin and ceramic, measuring 3.9 ft. tall, late 19th Century, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
1919-1920: Vladimir Tatlin: Monument to the Third International
The greatest work of Soviet architecture – Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International – was never actually built. Tatlin designed a huge structure that would have served as both a monument to the Bolshevik Revolution and also as the headquarters for the International Communist Party. Made from glass, wood and steel, the building would have housed four separate rotating modules suspended within a massive outer framework, each with its own designated function. The lowest level would be a cube for meetings and conferences that completed one rotation in a year; above it, a pyramid with executive offices that would take a month to rotate; the next level would be a cylindrical information center that completed a rotation every day; the top would have been a hemisphere housing radio equipment. The entire structure would have been over 1,300 ft tall. In 1920, Tevel Shapiro, Sofia Dymshits-Tolstaia, Iosif Meerzon, and Pavel Vinogradov constructed a scale model (13.8 ft tall and 9.8 ft in circumference) of the structure under Tatlin’s direction, which only survives in photographs (see first image). Several attempts to reconstruct Tatlin’s Tower (as some have called it) have been made, including a 1979 version as part of the Moscow-Paris exhibition at the National Museum of Modern Art at the Pompidou Center in Paris (second image) and a 1:42 scale model at the Royal Academy of the Arts in London, from 2011 (third image).
1920: Otto Dix: The Skat Players (Card-Playing War Invalids)
[Expressionism/Neue Sachlichkeit; Germany]
At the end of World War I, 1.5 million German veterans returned home with serious injuries, including 800,000 amputees. The sight of such misery was too much for many Germans, for whom it reminded them only of their ignominious defeat. German Expressionist Otto Dix, who had fought in the war, suffered injuries and was possibly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, chose instead to paint the effects of war on these men with an unblinking eye. His 1920 painting and collage The Skat Players (later renamed Card-Playing War Invalids) provides a horrifying and detailed view of injuries resulting from artillery fire. Three veterans play a popular card game at a cafe in what appears to be Dresden, judging from the newspapers (see first image above). The veteran on the left has no arms, a disfigured face, one original leg, which he uses to hold the cards, and one wooden leg. His remaining hair is carefully arranged. A listening device sitting on the card table is attached to his right ear. The man in the center has a prosthetic jaw, a prosthetic eye, a listening device and a bandage on his head with a figure sketched on it. He has no arms and two wooden legs; he holds a card in his teeth. The man on the right has no legs, one original arm and one prosthetic arm, a prosthetic jaw and a patch that covers his missing nose. He is wearing a jacket with the Iron Cross of the German army that is made out of the thick woven paper used to make clothing at the end of the war, but the jacket is not long enough to cover his genitals, which are exposed on the chair. His jaw contains a photograph of Otto Dix with the inscription, “lower jaw prosthesis brand Dix” (see second image above). The wooden legs of the men are barely distinguishable from the legs of the card table. Consistent with the philosophy of the Neue Sachlichheit, or New Objectivity, a movement with which he aligned himself, Dix mixed his paint with the elements of collage: the newspapers, the playing cards, and the blue paper jacket on the right are all real physical objects attached to the canvas. The result is a painting that mixes us up with the physical content of the time. The Skat Players was made with oils on canvas with photomontage and collage; it measures 3.6 ft. tall by 2.8 ft. wide and is now located at Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin.
In the last years of his life, the ponds of Claude Monet’s Giverney, France garden provided him with endless material for his increasingly abstract paintings. Reflections of Clouds on the Water Lily Pond, part of the Water Lilies series, is a 1920 triptych that shows the reflection of the blue sky, clouds and trees in the water of the pond, along with the water lilies and water lily pads floating on the surface (see first and second images, above). In the large paintings he began after the death of his wife in 1911, Monet sought to create the illusion of “an endless whole, of water without horizon or bank.” By showing us only the water’s surface, with no horizon or land, Monet eliminates conventional clues to vantage point, immersing the viewer in the space between the water’s surface and the light (see detail in third image above). Each oil-on-canvas panel of the triptych is 6.5 ft. tall by 13.9 ft. wide; the overall work is 6.5 ft. tall by 41.8 ft. wide. Reflections of Clouds on the Water Lily Pond is now located in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
1921: Max Ernst: The Elephant Celebes [Dada/Surrealism; Germany]
German Surrealist and Dadaist Max Ernst obtained the inspiration for The Elephant Celebes from a photo in a British anthropological journal showing a large clay corn-bin used by the Konkombwa people of Sudan (see second image above). Ernst transformed the corn bin into a metallic elephant-like machine/animal (see first image above). He set the horizon low to emphasize the bulk of the contraption. A large hose or tube emerges from near the top of the body, ending with a white collar and a horned bull’s skull. At the top of the body is a set of indeterminate items, perhaps metal sheets, in blue and red, with one staring eye or eye-like feature. Two tusks peek out from the other end of the ‘elephant’, implying the existence of another head (or perhaps the only true head) at the unseen, opposite end of the creature. The elephant stands on a flat concrete or paved geometrically shaped patio surrounded by grass, with mountains in the distance. To the left is a pole; to the right is a tall structure with totem-like sections. Two angled protrusions (perhaps phallic) point toward the elephant – one is bright red and near it hovers a red ball. A short blue pole stands behind the elephant’s left ‘leg’. In the lower right corner, a headless nude female figure wearing a surgical glove gestures, either for the viewer to look at the elephant or for the elephant to come to her. Above, two fish fly or swim from left to right. There is an airplane-like object in the air, as well as a trail of smoke pointing downward. Ernst’s original title was Celebes, which was the former name of the Indonesian island now known as Sulawesi. Ernst told one of the owners that the title came from a German children’s rhyme with sexual connotations that begins “The elephant from Celebes/has sticky yellow bottom grease.” As with so much Surrealist art, the painting possesses the imagery and logic of a dream, and may also draw on the Freudian technique of free association. The Elephant Celebes was made with oils on a canvas measuring 4.1 ft. tall by 3.5 ft. wide. It is now in the Tate Modern in London.
1921: Pablo Picasso: Three Musicians [Synthetic Cubism; France]
By 1921, the modern art movement known as Cubism had passed through several phases: analytic (1907-1911), synthetic (1912-1914) and crystal (1914-1918), and some thought the movement was dead. But in the early 1920s, Pablo Picasso and others returned to the style, creating a number of important works in the process. Picasso’s two 1921 paintings entitled Three Musicians is a painting that recalls the paper cutout collages and other multimedia experiments of synthetic cubism, though it does so using only oil paints. As with other Cubist works, the emphasis is on the flatness of the canvas – little or no effort is made to create the illusion of three-dimensionality. We see a trio of instrument-playing men dressed up as characters from 17th and 18th Century commedia dell’arte: muticolored Harlequin, Pierrot, all in white, and the darkly-shrouded Monk. Picasso may have meant the three to represent himself (Harlequin) and two of his close friends from pre-war days: the French poet Apollinaire (Pierrot), who died in the 1918 flu epidemic; and Max Jacob (the Monk), also a poet, who entered a monastery the same year Picasso made the paintings. The version in New York’s Museum of Modern Art is more famous (see first image), but Philadelphia Museum of Art curator Michael Taylor asserts that that their version of Three Musicians is more daring in its “far more aggressive use of its materials” (see second image).
1922: Paul Klee: The Twittering Machine
Paul Klee was associated with a number of different artistic movements during his career, including the Bauhaus, whose motto was “Art and Technology – A New Unity.” That motto may help viewers to make sense of Klee’s deliberately smudgy Twittering Machine, which looks so much like an illustration for a children’s book that it is common for parents to hang prints of it in their children’s bedrooms. But is it simply a whimsical machine with mechanical birds – a type of steampunk music box? Critics and scholars have attributed a myriad of meanings to the piece – not surprisingly, perhaps, as one thing critics seem to agree on is that Klee deliberately left his works open to multiple interpretations. Questions include: are these real live birds or some kind of animatronic robot birds? (Klee like to show living beings and mechanical analogs in his work – such as birds alongside airplanes.) If real, are they perched on the machine or tied to it involuntarily? Are the positions of their bodies meant to show a type of musical notation? (Klee was the son of a musicologist and grew up around music.) What will happen if someone turns the lever at far right? And what is the purpose of the large rectangular pit beneath the contraption? Is it, as some suppose, a pit that awaits the unwary? Made with watercolor and oils on paper backed with cardboard, Twittering Machine is now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Random Trivia: (1) Klee’s Twittering Machine was on display in a Berlin museum in 1937 when the Nazis declared it ‘degenerate art’ and banned its display. Fortunately for art lovers, instead of destroying the work, the Nazis sold it to an art dealer to raise funds, and that dealer sold it to MOMA. (2) The musical aspects of Twittering Machine have inspired a number of composers to set the piece to music. Click on the video below to hear Gunther Schuller’s Seven Studies on Themes by Paul Klee: 4: The Twittering Machine, a 12-tone piece from 1959 (please forgive the ad).
1915-1923: Marcel Duchamp: The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) [Cubism/Conceptual Art; France]
Marcel Duchamp worked on The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (also known as The Large Glass), for eight years before finally concluding that it was “definitively unfinished” but ready to exhibit. After a 1926-1927 exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, the large piece was damaged in transport, creating swirls of cracks in the glass. Now, Duchamp concluded, the piece was finished. He patched up the pieces, added a clear layer of glass to each side and enclosed it all in an aluminum frame (see images above). According to Duchamp’s complex and (intentionally?) obscure notes, the work represents a conflict between the Bride in the upper panel (the Bride’s Domain) and the nine Bachelors in the lower panel (the Bachelor’s Apparatus). Duchamp’s notes speak of a state of perpetual desire and various erotic proceedings. The work, not truly either sculpture or painting, and certainly far from the Readymades for which Duchamp was famous, changes with the changing light and based on who or what is visible on the other side of the glass. The Large Glass is made with oil, varnish, lead foil, lead wire, dust, and two glass panels, and measures 9.1 ft. tall by 5.8 ft. wide by 3.4 in. deep. The original is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in a location specifically selected by Duchamp. Duchamp also authorized three replicas, which are located in the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden (1961); the Tate Modern in London (1966) and the Komaba Museum in Tokyo.
1923: Constantin Brâncuși: Bird in Space [Modernism/Abstract Art; Romania/France]
In creating Bird in Space, Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncuși eliminated almost all the attributes of a bird – wings, beak, claws, feathers – leaving only a representation of the bird’s movement. Brâncuși said that Bird in Space reduced reality to the essential, but critics have noted that achieving the grace and balance to transform a piece of marble or bronze into a soaring abstracted concept of a bird requires both skill and inspiration. The original Bird in Space was made from white marble in 1923. After that, Brâncuși made six more marble sculptures and cast nine bronze versions. Information about 11 of the 16 casts is provided below:
(1) Bird in Space, made in 1923 with white marble, measuring 4.7 ft. tall by 6.5 in. in diameter; now at Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (first image);
(2) Bird in Space, made in 1923-1924 with white marble, now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania;
(3) Bird in Space, made in 1924 with bronze, now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania;
(4) Bird in Space, made in 1925-1926 with bronze, now at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in Los Angeles, California;
(5) Bird in Space, made in 1926 with bronze, now at the Seattle Art Museum in Seattle, Washington;
(6) Bird in Space, made in 1927 with bronze, now at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in Los Angeles, California;
(7) Bird in Space, made in 1928 with bronze, measuring 4.5 ft. tall, by 8.5 in. wide, 6.5 in. deep, now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (see second image);
(8) Bird in Space, made in 1931 with bronze, now at the Norton Simon Museum of Art in Pasadena, California;
(9) Bird in Space, two sculptures made in c. 1931-1936, one with white marble and one with black marble, each measuring 6 ft. tall by 1.4 ft. in diameter, now in the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra (see third image);
(10) Bird in Space, made in c. 1941 with bronze, now in the Museum of Modern Art in New York; and
(11) Bird in Space, made at an unknown date with bronze, now in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, Italy.
1923-1924: Joan Miró: The Tilled Field [Surrealism; Spain/France]
Joan Miró’s road to pure abstraction was filled with epiphanies. At about the time that the Catalonian-born artist was painting The Tilled Field, he said, “I have managed to escape into the absolute of nature.” As one critic stated, The Tilled Field‘s “fanciful juxtaposition of human, animal, and vegetal forms and its array of schematized creatures constitute a realm visible only to the mind’s eye, and reveal the great range of Miró’s imagination” (see first image above). This was not the first time that Miró had been inspired to paint his family’s farm in Montroig, Catalonia. To see how much his style had changed in a few years, compare The Tilled Field with The Farm, from 1921-1922 (see second image above). While Miró’s style was firmly rooted in Surrealism, scholars have traced his influences in The Tilled Field to such varied sources as Catalan Romanesque frescoes, medieval Spanish tapestries, Catalan ceramics, the Altamira cave paintings, and Byzantine depictions of eye-winged angels. Miró also states his politics quite clearly by showing the French and Catalan flags together, separated from the Spanish flag. In so doing, he declares his loyalty to the Catalonian cause of independence, which had recently suffered a serious blow from Spain’s new dictator. The Tilled Field was made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.2 ft. tall by 3 ft. wide. It is now located in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.
1923-1924: Joan Miró: The Hunter (Catalan Landscape) [Surrealism; Spain/France]
Spanish Surrealist Joan Miró spent much of his career in Paris, but his heart belonged to his native Catalonia, a semi-autonomous region of Spain with its own language. In The Hunter, also known as Catalan Landscape, he presents iconography that is both Surrealist and Catalonian. The painting is first divided into large patches of color – orange for land, yellow for sea and sky. The hunter is a Catalan peasant, with one eye, a beard, beret and pipe, who holds a rabbit and a smoking gun. His heart, entrails and genitals are also displayed. According to Miró himself, the figure to the left of the hunter is an airplane with a propeller, ladder and the French and Catalan flags (a Spanish flag is seen on the right). He continues: “A sea and one boat in the distance, and in the very foreground, a sardine with tail and whiskers gobbling up a fly. A broiler waiting for the rabbit, flames and a pimento on the right…” Critics have identified the large beige circle as the cross section of a carob tree with a leaf and a giant eye. There is some dispute about the letters “SARD” – some scholars equate it with the sardana, the national dance of Catalonia, while some believe it refers to the sardine pictured near the letters. The Hunter was made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.1 ft. tall by 3.3 ft. wide. It is now located in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
1924-1925: Joan Miró: The Harlequin’s Carnival [Surrealism; Spain/France]
By the time he painted The Harlequin’s Carnival (also known as Carnival of the Harlequin) in 1924-1925, Catalan Surrealist Joan Miró was working almost entirely out of his imagination, creating creatures and objects that had little relation to objects in the world outside the canvas. The occasion of The Harlequin’s Carnival is probably the Christian festival known variously as Mardi Gras or Carnival, on the eve of the fasting season of Lent, when people wear masks and engage in merrymaking. Unfortunately, the host of the party, the Harlequin himself, is despairing. Based on a common theater character, usually a servant who plays tricks on his master, pines for an unrequited love and plays the guitar, the Harlequin here is transformed into a guitar with a head, arms and feet. He has a hole in his heart and a sharp spike in his head. According to Miró, he painted The Harlequin’s Carnival during a time when he was struggling financially and not sure if he was going to succeed as an artist. Ironically, it was this painting that became his first acknowledged masterpiece. The Harlequin’s Carnival is 2.2 ft. tall by 2.9 ft. wide. It is now located in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York.
1925: Joan Miró: The Birth of the World [Surrealism; Spain/France]
Joan Miró described The Birth of the World as “a sort of genesis” but art historians recognize it as one of his first purely abstract creations. To make the painting, Miró first applied paint to an unevenly primed canvas somewhat chaotically, with a nod to the automism technique of the Surrealists. Then he went back to his notebooks for planned schematic designs that he carefully painted on the surface of the anarchic underpainting. As one critic noted, “Miró places totally abstract geometric forms on a picture surface that has been stained and scarred as though attacked by vandals.” Some have attempted to find meaning in these “totally abstract” forms – an orange balloon (or a sperm?), a man with a black body and a white head, a triangular kite (or a womb?). The Birth of the World was made with oils on a canvas measuring 8.2 ft by 6.6 ft. and is now located in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
1914-1926: Claude Monet: Water Lilies (Les Nymphéas) [Impressionism; France]
During the last 30 years of his life, French Impressionist painter Claude Monet created approximately 250 paintings of the water lilies in the ponds of his home in Giverny, France. As a group, the paintings are called Les Nymphéas or The Water Lilies, although many pieces have individual titles. The 250 paintings are distributed in museums all over the world. Monet donated eight of his final Water Lily oils-on-canvas murals – including some of the most abstract – to the French government; they are displayed in specially-designed oval rooms in the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, where the giant canvases curve to allow the viewer to feel completely immersed in them. Each mural is 6.5 ft. tall; if lined up, they would span 298.5 feet. Each painting depicts a specific place in the gardens at a specific time; the flat surface of the water fills the canvas so we see no ground, no horizon line and no sky (although the sun, clouds and sky are reflected in the water, as are the trees and vines along the banks of the ponds). The figures are simplified and the painting is sometimes rough, with multiple layers of paint and obvious brushstrokes. Monet encounters the two-dimensions of the canvas directly in a way that anticipates the Action Painters of the 1950s. The images above show all or part of four of the Orangerie paintings: (1) The Water Lilies – Morning with Willows (The Morning Willows), three panels, 1918-1926; (2) The Water Lilies – The Clouds, three panels, 1920-1926; (3) The Water Lilies – Setting Sun, single panel, 1920-1926; and (4) Water Lilies, 1920-1926.
1926: Wassily Kandinsky: Several Circles [Expressionism/Abstract Art; Russia/Germany]
Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky returned to Russia from Germany at the beginning of World War I and absorbed the influence of Suprematism and Constructivism, with their emphasis on geometric shapes, but he returned to Germany in 1921 after his belief that abstract forms had expressive content alienated him from his colleagues. At the Bauhaus, Kandinsky explored the relationship between shape and color, and in Composition VIII, he began working with the circle form. Several Circles, from 1926, marked a turning point – according to Kandinsky, the circle is the primary form that “points most clearly to the fourth dimension.” The painting depicts approximately three dozen circles of differing sizes and colors, some overlapping others, some not touching anything else – all on a black background from which they seem to float out of the canvas. This floating effect, scholars point out, is not random – it is a direct result of the choices that Kandinsky made about the colors, positions and sizes of the circles. Several Circles is considered an abstract painting, but the mind seeks to impose representation. For example, the largest circle, the only one with a rough, hazy edge, is also the brightest, although it is almost completely obscured by a purple circle (unless the purple circle is the largest, and the bright, hazy ring around it is a kind of halo or corona). It is easy to imagine that the large, bright circle represents the sun or another star being eclipsed by a large moon or planet. (Others have imagined bubbles rising.) Having all the circles seeming to float against a black background brings to mind all the various types of astronomical bodies – stars, planets, moons, etc. And then again, maybe each circle is just a circle, or as Kandinsky described it, “a single tension that carries countless tensions within it.” Several Circles was made with oils on a canvas measuring 4.6 ft. tall by 4.6 ft. wide; it is now located in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.
1926: Otto Dix: Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden
[Expressionism/Neu Sachlicheit; Germany]
Otto Dix was famous for making the subjects of his portraits less attractive, but by 1926, he was famous enough that people were willing to pay him to make them uglier. Sylvia von Harden was a poet and film critic and a regular at the Romanisches Café in Berlin, a hangout for artists and bohemians. According to von Harden, Dix walked up to her one day and blurted out, “I must paint you, I simply must! You represent an entire epoch”, to which von Harden replied, “You want to paint my lacklustre eyes, my ornate ears, my long nose, my thin lips? You want to paint my short legs, my big feet – things that can only frighten people and delight no one?” With her trendy bob haircut, monocle, public smoking of Russian cigarettes and androgynous look, Sylvia von Harden was the epitome of the Neue Frau – the new woman of 1920s Germany. Dix wanted her portrait to represent a generation concerned not with the outward beauty of a woman but her psychological condition. Dix’s commitment to the Neue Sachlicheit, or New Objectivity, meant not that his paintings were faithful to reality as seen by a camera, for example (see August Sander’s photographic portrait of Sylvia von Harden in the second image above), but faithful to the inner truth, no matter how ugly. So, in Dix’s portrait, we see the rings around von Harden’s eyes and her sagging stocking (see first image above). Her checkerboard red and black dress clashes with the pink walls behind her. Dix stretches her fingers to monstrous proportions, and places her hands in the Venus Pudica pose, one hiding her chest (although her clothing is tailored to downplay feminine features) and the other across her lap. A series of circles (monocle, cocktail glass, table top) contrasts with the flattened body of the subject and her inscribed cigarette case. The ornate furniture seems to belong to a bygone era. Later, von Harden recalled that, after seeing what Dix hath wrought, she thought the likeness was terrible, but she also believed that a portrait by Otto Dix would help her writing career, so she came out in favor of it. The Portrait of Journalist Sylvia von Harden was made with oils and tempera on a wood panel measuring 3.9 ft. tall by 2.9 ft. wide. It is now located in the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.
1926: George Grosz: Pillars of Society [Expressionism/Dada/New Objectivity; Germany]
German artist George Grosz was best known for skewering the powers-that-be in Weimar Germany, a task he accomplishes with gusto in The Pillars of Society (also known as Pillars of Society) from 1926. Grosz introduces four characters, each presented with his ‘attributes’: (1) at front right, an aristocrat/lawyer with an old-fashioned collar, monocle, dueling scar and a swastika on his tie holds a fencing foil in one hand and a beer in the other; a horse armed for battle – the valiant knight of fantasy – emerges from his earless head; (2) to the left and slightly farther back, clutching newspapers, is a journalist, probably publishing baron Alfred Hugenberg, with a chamber pot for a hat, holding a pencil and a bloodied branch of peace palm; (3) to the right middle is a politician, possibly German president Friedrich Ebert, holding a Weimar flag and a pamphlet reading “Socialism Is Working” or “Socialism Is Work”; the top of his head is removed to reveal a pile of steaming excrement; (4) in the rear is an alcoholic clergyman, who preaches peace with eyes closed, ignoring the atrocities of the army and armed militias and the chaos that can be seen through the windows. The painting, whose title is an ironic twist on the title of an Ibsen play, lays the blame for the disruptions of 1926 Germany at the feet of the ruling class, but it also predicts that, if the Nazis were to gain power, it will be because these components of society – the aristocracy, the press, the clergy and the political establishment – either abetted them, looked the other way, or were too stupid or incompetent to stop them. Just seven years later, in 1933, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party took control, and Grosz’s work was condemned as ‘degenerate art.’ Pillars of Society was made with oils on a canvas measuring 6.5 ft. tall by 3.5 ft. wide. It is in the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin.
1927: Max Beckmann: Self-Portrait in Tuxedo
[Expressionism/New Objectivity; Germany]
German artist Max Beckmann painted Self-Portrait in Tuxedo (also known as Self-Portrait in a Tuxedo and Self-Portrait Smoking) in 1927, the same year he wrote an essay called “The Artist in the State”, in which he decreed that because artists should be among the leaders in the new social and political order, they should dress accordingly. “The new priests of these new cultural centers have to appear in dark suits, or, on ceremonial occasions, in white tie and tails,” Beckmann wrote. “Furthermore, it is essential that working men too should appear in black tie or white.” The suave cultivated man smoking a cigarette while wearing a tuxedo was one of many personae Beckmann adopted for his frequent self-portraits. Over the years, he had painted himself with a horn, a saxophone, and a champagne glass, wearing a red scarf, a bowler hat, and a sailor hat, with soap bubbles, in front of a red curtain, as a medical orderly, and as an acrobat on a trapeze. Although art historians place Beckmann with the Expressionist and Neue Sachlicheit movements, the man himself abhorred labels. He believed in representational art and railed against abstraction. Here, he reduces the elements of the painting to a minimum. Besides the black and white of the clothing, color is nearly absent. The background is spare – a wall and an opaque window – and there are no props or decorations but the cigarette. The viewer focuses instead on the confident figure – his stance, his expression, and the play of light. There is symmetry here, in the light and shadow produced by the backlighting of the subject by the window. The lighting focuses our attention on Beckmann’s head and hands, which are joined by the bridge of his white shirt. The position of the hands is of particular interest – both hands stay within the frame of the body, creating a closed system for a self-contained, self-reliant being. The lighting of the background shifts from dark on the left to brighter on the right, drawing the eye with it, but the leftward thrust of the hand with the cigarette brings the eye back to the center. Like so many of his colleagues, Beckmann was targeted by the Nazis; 10 of his works were featured in the Degenerate Art exhibition, leading Beckmann to flee to the United States. Self-Portrait in a Tuxedo, which was made with oils on a canvas measuring 4.6 ft. tall by 3.1 ft. wide, is now at the Busch-Reisinger Museum at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
1927-1928: Max Ernst: The Forest (series) [Dada; Surrealism; Germany]
The Romantic landscape painters imagined an invisible realm at work in the natural world, while the Surrealists saw the forest as a metaphor for the imagination. German painter Max Ernst combined these seemingly contradictory attitudes about the forest with his childhood experience of the forest as the embodiment of both enchantment and terror in painting the Forest series (also known as the Forest and Sun series) in the late 1920s. The Forest paintings featured a wall of trees, a stylized solar disk (possibly in eclipse) and often a bird, probably representing Ernst himself, caught in the forbidding landscape. Probably the most highly-regarded of the series is Forest and Dove, from 1927, now located in the Tate Modern in London. The works evoke both elements of apparently incompatible dualities, for example, joy and sadness, freedom and captivity, or hope and unease. To create the unusual textures of his Forest paintings, Ernst employed a technique he invented called grattage, in which he scraped paint from prepared canvases over underlying materials such as wire mesh, chair caning, leaves, buttons and twine, thus revealing the imprints of the foreign objects and adding a random or automatic element to the creative process. The images above show six of the paintings in Ernst’s Forest series:
(1) Forest and Dove, made with oils on a canvas measuring 3.3 ft. tall by 2.7 ft. wide, from 1927, now in the Tate Modern in London;
(2) The Great Forest, made with oils on a canvas measuring 3.7 ft. tall by 4.8 ft. wide, from 1927, now in the Kunstmuseum Basel in Basel, Switzerland;
(3) Forest and Sun, oils on a canvas measuring 2.2 ft. wide by 2.7 ft. wide, from 1927, now at the Art Institute of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois;
(4) The Wood, made with oils on a canvas measuring 1.9 ft. tall by 2.7 ft. wide, from 1927, now at the National Museum of Cardiff in Cardiff, Wales, UK;
(5) The Forest, made with oils on a canvas measuring 3.1 ft. tall by 4.2 ft. wide, from 1927-1928, now in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, Italy; and
(6) Petrified Forest, made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.6 ft. tall by 3.3 ft. wide, from 1927, now at the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo.
1928: Joan Miró: Dutch Interior I [Surrealism; Spain/France]
Spanish artist Joan Miró once vowed to “assassinate” painting, but after a 1928 trip to The Netherlands, where he viewed the paintings of the Old Dutch Masters first hand, he decided to reinvent painting instead according to his understanding of what is possible in modern art. Dutch Interior I (see first image above) is a reimagining of Hendrick Martensz Sorgh’s 17th Century painting The Lute Player (see second image above). After seeing the work at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Miró bought a postcard, pinned it to his easel, and proceeded to reproduce the scene in a faithful but wholly new way. Instead of mixing colors to create subtle realistic tones, Miró used flat hues directly from the tubes. Instead of reproducing the objects in The Lute Player according to their actual sizes, he enlarged important elements like the lute player’s head, collar and mustache and the lute itself) and made less significant items smaller (where is the young student?). Along with his modernist colleagues, Miró rejects naturalistic modeling and one-point perspective as lies told by painters to deceive. Instead, his style and technique constantly remind us that we are looking at paint on a two-dimensional canvas. Not surprisingly, Miró has made some additions to Sorgh’s composition: we see some of his trademark fantastic animals and other objects that do not appear to correspond to anything in the original. Where Miró and his 17th Century Dutch counterpart cross paths, perhaps, is in their shared love of rendering the figures and objects on the canvas with tender, intimate detail. One may be realistic; the other fantastic; but they share this painterly passion for the preciseness of a very fine brush. Dutch Interior I (one of three similar paintings known as the Dutch Interiors) was made with oils on a canvas measuring 3 ft. tall by 2.4 ft. wide. It is now located in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
1930: Grant Wood: American Gothic [Regionalism; US]
One of the most recognized pieces of American art, American Gothic depicts two figures standing in front of the Dibble house in Eldon, Iowa. The house was built in the Carpenter Gothic style; it was the architecture that first interested American painter Grant Wood, who thought that adding a Gothic window to an ordinary frame house was pretentious, and gave the work its title. Wood made a pencil sketch of the house while visiting Eldon in August 1930; he returned the next day (with the permission of the owners) to make another sketch using oils on paperboard. When Wood returned to his studio in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he recruited his sister Nan to pose for the woman and his dentist, Dr. Byron McKeeby, to pose for the man (see second image). Although there is some evidence that Wood’s initial intent was to portray a husband and wife, Nan insisted that she was supposed to be the farmer’s daughter, not his wife, and Wood never disputed her interpretation. Wood entered the painting in a contest at the Art Institute of Chicago; it won third place and a cash prize of $300. Contemporary critics and the public interpreted the painting as a biting satire of small-town rural America, but at some point during the Great Depression, American Gothic acquired a reputation as a tribute to the steadfast pioneer spirit. Wood’s iconic image was even selected for a patriotic poster by the U.S. Government during World War II. In modern times, the painting has been the source of many parodies, mostly affectionate, and is considered a cultural icon. American Gothic, made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.4 ft. tall by 2 ft. wide, is now in the Art Institute of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois.
1930: Edward Hopper: Early Sunday Morning
[American Scene Painting; American Social Realism; US]
American realist painter Edward Hopper once told the story of a late-night discussion with college friends about what a room would look like when no one was looking at it. Hopper’s 1930 painting Early Sunday Morning may be an answer to that question – it is a view without a viewer. The viewpoint is that of someone standing directly across the street from the row of storefronts. The time is early morning (not necessarily Sunday – Hopper blamed someone else for the title) and the rising sun casts long shadows. While the scene was inspired by Seventh Avenue in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood, Hopper has eliminated or blurred identifying details so this could be an urban streetscape almost anywhere, as long as the neighborhood is apparently devoid of living things. In an early version of the painting, a tenant stood in one of the second floor windows, but Hopper painted over the figure, leaving us with the unsettling sense that people live behind those shades and curtains but they are missing from the painting’s world. There are other unsettling signs. A tall object outside the frame to the right casts a very long shadow that slices down the middle of the sidewalk. The dark rectangle in the upper right corner may be a skyscraper menacing the neighborhood. Even the many horizontal lines and forms that appear to extend past the right and left edges of the canvas (storefronts, sidewalk, curb, street) bring on a feeling of desolation that even the warm light of early morning on red stone cannot dispel. Hopper’s Early Sunday Morning was made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.9 ft. high by 5 ft. wide; it is now in the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
1931: Salvador Dali: The Persistence of Memory [Surrealism; Spain/France]
The Persistence of Memory is Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali’s most famous creation, other than perhaps himself. Dali and other surrealist painters, who drew much of their inspiration from the theories of Sigmund Freud, presented dream-like imagery in a highly realistic and exact style. In addition to the four ‘soft’ or ‘melting’ pocket watches (one covered by ants, a symbol of decay), Dali paints a gruesome self-portrait in the center, a sort of monster with one closed eye, who may be dreaming. The background landscape and the looming mountain casting an immense shadow over the foreground reference Dali’s native Catalonia. Small but thought-provoking, The Persistence of Memory was made with oils on a canvas measuring 9.5 in. tall by 13 in. wide and is now in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
1932: Paul Klee: Ad Parnassum [Iconoclasm; Germany/Switzerland]
Swiss German artist Paul Klee created Ad Parnassum in 1932 using a complicated four-step technique: (1) paint large blocks on untreated canvas; (2) paint small blocks in white on large blocks; (3) paint over small white blocks using color; (4) add dark lines and orange circle (see entire work in first image above and detail of technique in second image above). Termed divisionism after Seurat, Klee’s technique arose in part from his belief that all natural processes involved the permutation and movement of fundamental units of construction. Other elements of Klee’s multifaceted aesthetics include his ideas about color and his exploration of the connections between painting and music. Ad Parnassum was the final entry in a series of ‘magic square’ paintings, in which Klee applied his theories about color, music and fundamental units of construction. Scholars have suggested that the work supports multiple interpretations, even across such fundamental boundaries as whether the painting is representational or abstract art. According to one theory, Ad Parnassum (translated as ‘toward Parnassus’) represents a gate that leads to the triangle-shaped mountain Parnassus where, in Greek mythology, the god Apollo lived with the nine Muses, the goddesses of the arts (and knowledge). The notion of direction is represented by four arrow-like black outlines, each pointing to one of the four compass directions. Another representationalist theory equates the triangle shape with the Great Pyramids, which Klee saw during a trip to Egypt in 1928, and the blocks of paint with the building blocks used to make the pyramids. The triangle could also represent a mountain near Klee’s home. Another theory focuses on Klee’s fascination with polyphonic music and its relationship to visual art. The phrase ‘gradus ad Parnassum’ has been commonly used for centuries to describe any process of learning that requires gradual steps, and is also the title of a 1725 work on musical counterpoint by Johann Fux, that Klee may have seen. Under this theory, the elements of the painting constitute separate, simultaneous themes, similar to the themes in polyphonic musical work; the arrows could indicate crescendo and diminuendo effects. Ad Parnassum, one of Paul Klee’s largest paintings, was made with oils on a canvas measuring 3.2 ft. tall by 4.2 ft. wide. It is now located in the Kunstmuseum in Bern, Switzerland.
1932-1933: Max Beckmann: Departure [Expressionism/New Objectivity; Germany]
German artist Max Beckmann created his first triptych, Departure, as the Weimar Republic was crumbling and Hitler’s Storm Troopers were committing mayhem and murder in the streets of Berlin. In this time of chaos, Beckmann looked back to a Gothic religious form, the triptych, that signified a time when the dominant institution in the community proclaimed common beliefs through art. Here, however, the beliefs portrayed by Beckmann are anything but common. As one scholar has noted, the three panels of Departure contain highly specific representational images, but are not susceptible to any obvious interpretation. Beckmann himself was harassed by patrons and admirers to provide an explanation, but his responses, while intriguing, were mostly cryptic. The overall scheme appears to be tragedy, horror and despair on the dark, outer panels, with hope and freedom in the brighter, less crowded center panel (see first image above). A. Left Panel. We see four figures, three columns, a still life and a mirror/crystal ball. The central figure, known as the executioner, carries a weapon with a bag of fish at the end of it. Around him are three victims: (1) a ghostly white, possibly nude man stands with his arms over his head, bloody stumps where his hands used to be, arms tied together and around a column, with a gag across his face, facing outward; (2) a clothed man stands with his back to us, facing a column, standing in a barrel of liquid, hands tied at the wrists; and (3) a woman kneels on the floor, nude except for a tight corset around her middle, her arms over her head, tied at the wrists, she is face down on the crystal ball, which seems to display a building with windows; she kneels on an upside-down newspaper (Zeitung in German), although only the word “Zeit” or “Time” is visible. B. Right Panel. We see a stage with a proscenium arch with five figures in front of it and stairways in the background, on which people perch, watching. The figures are: (1) a uniformed blindfolded bellboy with a large fish; (2) a woman with one exposed breast carrying a lamp; (3) a man tied upside down to the woman’s front with his hands tied behind his back and his head facing the woman and touching the stage; (4) a very small, but amply endowed, human figure (possibly a naked child) behind the woman; and (5) in front of the stage, a man wearing a Louis XI costume wearing a bass drum. C. Center Panel. We see five human figures on a boat in the ocean: (1) a hooded man stands next to an oar in the left foreground, wearing a red drapery and yellow arm bands, and holding a very large fish with both hands; (2) a man with a yellow crown (which seems to float on the horizon), a blue drapery and a yellow waistband holds a net full of fish with his left hand and makes the Christian sign of blessing with his right. Sitting in the background but visible between the two men in the foreground are (3) a woman with a yellow arm band, a Phrygian cap and a necklace/collar, holding the leg of a naked yellow-haired child with her right hand; (4) a barely-visible man with a cap holding the same child with his right hand; the child’s head obscures the man’s right eye; and (5) the yellow-haired child. Interpretations abound so I will only mention a few. All three panels feature fish. In Beckmann’s mythology, fish may represent the male phallus, the male life force, the will, or abundance/fecundity. In Christian iconography, the fish is a symbol of Jesus, who asked his disciples to become ‘fishers of men.’ The crowned figure in the boat holding a net full of fish may be Christ or a Christ-like being. Some find political meaning in the images – the sadism and tragedy represented in the side panels may have been inspired by the Nazi atrocities going on at the time. In addition, the drummer in the right panel resembles Joseph Goebbels, Nazi propagandist, with what might be one of millions of Nazi posters pasted to his drum. Others say that the painting condemns the state’s oppression of art and artists – they note that the executioner in the striped shirt resembles Beckmann himself. As possible support for such topical interpretations, Beckmann was on the verge of departure himself; he would flee Germany after his work was condemned in the Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich beginning in July 1937. Others believe that a specific anti-Nazi interpretation oversimplifies the timeless and universal aspects of Departure. Beckmann said as much when he described the center panel to his patron Lilly von Schnitzler in February 1937: “The King and Queen, Man and Woman, are taken to another shore by a boatsman who they do not know, he wears a mask, it is the mysterious figure taking us to a mysterious land. [Lilly then asked if the boatsman is Acheron, taking them over the River Styx – Beckmann ignored her and continued:] … The King and Queen have freed themselves, freed themselves of the tortures of life – they have overcome them. The Queen carries the greatest treasure – Freedom – as her child in her lap. Freedom is the one thing that matters – it is the departure, the new start.” From the three panels of Departure flow an unending stream of unanswered questions: If the man with the crown is the King and the woman is the Queen, then who is the other man holding the child? Why is the face of the woman on the stage in shadow, when she is holding a lamp? Are we seeing the same characters in all three panels at different stages of life? Are the columns in the torture chamber a reference to depictions of The Flagellation of Christ? Why is the executioner so small? Why is there a still life in the middle of a torture chamber? (Are we in an artist’s studio? Is there a connection to the still life in Les Demoiselles D’Avignon?) Has the woman in the left panel been raped? Enough. Departure was made with oils on canvas in three panels. Each side panel is 7 ft. tall by 3.3 ft. wide; the center panel measures 7 ft. tall by 3.8 ft. wide. Beckmann’s triptych is now located at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
1933, 1935: René Magritte: The Human Condition [Surrealism; Belgium]
I. (1933) National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
II. (1935) Simon Spierer Collection, Geneva
Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte gave the name The Human Condition to two different paintings with the same theme (and the same size, 3.2 ft. high by 2.7 ft. wide). In both works, an artist’s easel is set up in front of a landscape. In both works, the painting on the canvas blends perfectly with the actual view, and appears to represent the exact image that is otherwise blocked by the canvas. The painting style is hyperrealistic yet the landscapes are somewhat bland. Scholars have interpreted the paintings as a commentary on both human perception and the nature of art. When we look at the world, what we see is not the reality, but a mental representation. Similarly, a two-dimensional painting cannot reproduce nature, but only provide a representation of it. Art, then, merely makes overt a delusion that is normally covert: we cannot gain direct access to the world of our perceptions, whether we perceive reality or artistic representations of reality.
1935: Fernand Léger: The Two Sisters [Social Realism; France]
In the late 1920s, French artist Fernand Léger’s style changed significantly from his earlier Cubist work with its trademark cylinders (which led some to call his art Tubism). Léger began painting organic forms and figures that combined modern and classical elements. By 1935, when he made The Two Sisters (see first image above), Léger had adopted a type of social realist approach, painting somewhat stylized, poster-style monumental figures. The nudes of Two Sisters retain Cubist features, but are also recognizably human. Léger has added enough modeling to create the illusion of three dimensions, anathema to a true Cubist. But the figures are only human to a point: their left arms seem tacked on; the left breast of the left figure straddles the gap between the woman’s chest and arm. The woman on the right has no left breast at all; instead, her sister holds a twig with a breast-shaped flower where her breast should be. A snake or similar creature slithers from the flower, a reference perhaps to the Adam and Eve story, which was the subject of another Léger painting dating from about this time. In his works of this period, Léger sought to “express solidarity among anonymous members of mass society”, according to one critic. Others have noted that Léger’s social realist phase of the 1930s had a precursor in Pablo Picasso’s classical period from the 1920s. Compare The Two Sisters with, for example, Picasso’s Two Women Running on the Beach, from 1922 (see second image above). The Two Sisters was made with oils on a canvas measuring 5.3 ft. tall by 3.7 ft. wide and is now located in the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin.
1916-1936: Georges Rouault: The Old King [Expressionism; France]
French artist Georges Rouault began painting The Old King in 1916, but didn’t finish until 20 years later, in 1936. Considered a masterpiece of Rouault’s Expressionist style, The Old King, which shows an unidentified ancient monarch in profile, hearkens back to the stone reliefs of Assyria and Egypt, and portraits on Greek and Roman coins. The portrait expresses the burden but also the majesty and mystery of kingship in those times. Rouault introduces more modern themes by placing springs of white flowers in the king’s hand, instead of a scepter or crown. According to one scholar, “the white flowers, by embodying the fragility of life, the inevitability of death, and the inexorable cycles of birth and decay, confront the king with the limits of his power. Thus, a symbol that speaks of spring, innocence, and renewal gives a dark and bitter twist to the meaning of the traditional royal icon.” Rouault had studied stained glass technique, which is reflected in the thick black outlines surrounding compartments of glowing reds, blues and other colors. The Old King was made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.5 ft. tall by 1.8 ft. wide and is now located at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
1936: Salvador Dali: Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War)
Did Spanish Surrealist Salvador Dali have the ability to see the future? Most scholars agree that Dali created preparatory sketches for Soft Construction with Boiled Beans in 1934 and completed it in early 1936, about six months before Generalissimo Francisco Franco began the Fascist uprising that sparked the Spanish Civil War. Yet most scholars also agree that the painting’s depiction of two halves of a gruesome man-monster battling each other (Dali himself described it as “a vast human body breaking out into monstrous excrescences of arms and legs tearing at one another in a delirium of auto strangulation”) refers directly to Spain’s political schism. Even Dali agreed, as shown by his decision to retitle the work Premonition of Civil War. Perhaps the political turmoil preceding the war, as it rumbled through the collective unconscious and onto Dali’s sketch pad, made the gigantic creature(s) inevitable. As usual, Dali takes bizarre, unlikely and grisly distortions of everyday objects and figures and paints them in a hyperrealistic style, perhaps to make sure that we believe in their reality despite the urging of our rational minds to disregard them. The parallelogram-forming monsters exist in the arid landscape of Dali’s Spanish homeland. A normal-sized man peers over a giant hand. Boiled beans are scattered about, perhaps a reference to the Catalonian custom of offering beans to the gods. An inexplicable box or chest of drawers provides support for the arm/leg/torso of the lower giant. Note that, assuming Dali was intending to make a political statement, he did not take sides (unlike Picasso in Guernica, which came down squarely on the side of the Republicans). In fact, not long after the Spanish Civil War began, Dali’s right wing politics led the Surrealists to eject him from their group, prompting Dali’s declaration, “I am Surrealism!” Soft Construction with Baked Beans (Premonition of Civil War), made with oils on a canvas measuring about 3.3 ft. square, is now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
1936: Salvador Dali: Lobster Telephone [Surrealism; Spain/France]
Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí once wrote, “I do not understand why, when I ask for a grilled lobster in a restaurant, I am never served a cooked telephone.” Dalí answered his own question with Lobster Telephone, a 1936 composite of an ordinary working telephone mounted by a lobster made of painted plaster. The object is 6 in. tall, 12 in. wide and 6.6 in. deep and was commissioned by wealthy, eccentric English poet Edward James, who also owned three Dalí sofas shaped like Mae West’s lips. Lobster Telephone fulfills the requirements for a Surrealist object: the artist has combined items that are normally not associated with each other to produce an effect that is simultaneously playful and menacing. For Dali, both lobsters and telephones had sexual connotations; to emphasize this connection, he placed the sexual organs of the lobster directly over the mouthpiece of the telephone. He also believed that Surrealist objects such as Lobster Telephone could unlock the hidden desires of one’s unconscious mind. On another level, Lobster Telephone is simply (and intentionally) hilarious. There are five versions of the original Lobster Telephone, four of which were originally purchased by Edward James to replace all the standard phones at his country manor. The five objects are now located at Dalí Universe in London; the Museum für Kommunikation in Frankfurt; the Edward James Foundation in London; the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra; and the Tate Modern in London. There are also six versions of Lobster Telephone made with an off-white telephone at various museums.
1937: Pablo Picasso: Guernica [Cubism/Surrealism; Spain/France]
An anti-war icon, Guernica was Picasso’s impassioned response to the bombing of a Basque Country village by German and Italian warplanes supporting Franco’s Nationalists on April 27, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. Picasso painted Guernica, made with oils on a canvas measuring 11.5 ft. tall by 25.5 ft. wide, for the Spanish Pavilion of the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, where he was living at the time. (The second image shows Picasso working on Guernica.) Ironically, the theme of the Exposition was a celebration of modern technology. Guernica was painted using a palette of mostly black, white and gray to set a somber tone. Among the elements of the work are: (1) on the left, a bull stands over a grieving woman holding a dead child; (2) in the center, a horse with a gaping wound in its side falls in agony; (3) the bull’s tail becomes a flame with smoke; (4) beneath the horse lies a dead soldier; his severed arm holds a broken sword from which a flower grows; (5) a lightbulb/evil eye/sun (lightbulb is ‘bombilla’ in Spanish, while ‘bomba’ is Spanish for bomb) hangs over the horse’s head; (6) a woman floats into the room through a window to witness the horror, while her long arm holds a lamp near the lightbulb; (7) a woman stares up blankly at the lightbulb; (8) instead of tongues, daggers emerge from the mouths of the bull, the horse and the grieving woman; (9) there is a drawing of a dove with an olive branch on the wall, and a crack in the wall lets light in from outside; and (10) a man on the far right raises his arms in terror as fire engulfs him from above and below. Interpretations of the mural are many and varied and often contradict one another, although all agree that this is Picasso’s protest against the bombing of Guernica in particular and war in general. Picasso’s response to questions about the meaning of his work was, “This bull is a bull and this horse is a horse.” After the Fascists won the Civil War, Picasso refused to allow the painting to go to Spain as long as the Fascists remained in power. As a result, Guernica was sent to New York and was exhibited at Museum of Modern Art until 1981, after the restoration of democracy in Spain. Upon its arrival in Spain, Guernica was displayed in the Casón del Buen Retiro, part of the Museo del Prado in Madrid. In 1992, the painting was moved to a specially-constructed gallery in the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid.
1939: Frida Kahlo: The Two Fridas [Surrealism/Folk Art/Naive Art; Mexico]
Born in Mexico to a German father and a Mexican (Spanish/Indian) mother, Frida Kahlo was torn between two identities. When she married muralist Diego Rivera, he encouraged her to explore her traditional heritage. When Kahlo painted The Two Fridas, at 5.7 ft. square her largest canvas, she and Rivera were divorcing after 10 tempestuous years. In the double self-portrait, we see on the right the Frida that Rivera loved wearing traditional peasant garb, with her heart exposed but intact. In one hand she holds a small medallion with a picture of Rivera as a child. An artery leads from the medallion to Frida’s heart and then to the heart of the Frida on the left, the one that Rivera did not love. She wears the white dress of European colonials and her heart is broken. She tries to cut off the flow of blood from the artery, but it continues to drip, creating a pool on her dress. The two Friedas, already connected by the blood of Rivera’s memory, hold hands, echoing a portrait of Kahlo and Rivera at the time of their wedding. The message seems to be that, damaged heart or not, Frida can put her trust in herself. Frida Kahlo was embraced by the Surrealists, who found a kindred spirit in her dreamlike imagery and irrational juxtapositions, but her work has also been characterized as folk art due to its heavy reliance on symbols and images from native Mexican cultures. The Two Fridas, made with oils on canvas, is now in the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City.
1940: Edward Hopper: Gas [Social Realism/American Scene Painting; US]
Somewhere in America, it is dusk. As the sun sinks below the tree line, taking the natural light with it, the artificial lights come on at a lonely gas station, the last outpost of civilization before the narrow country road disappears into a forested wilderness. The attendant in denim overalls, almost lost amid the towering red gas pumps with their round gauges like the heads of robots, takes care of business, despite the lack of customers. In his 1940 painting Gas, American artist Edward Hopper creates drama with the use of different light sources – the harsh artificial light escapes from the door and windows of the building to create slashing geometric shapes on the sandy ground (contrasting with the inevitable diagonal of the roadway) – and by placing the highly saturated red pumps in the foreground, where they pop out of the canvas, while the complementary dark green trees loom forbodingly in the background. A similar drama occurs between the red roof of the station and the green tree behind it. Gas was made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.2 ft. tall by 3.3 ft. wide and is located at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
1942: Edward Hopper: Nighthawks [American Scene Painting; US]
The most famous work by American artist Edward Hopper, and one of the most recognizable American works of art, Nighthawks depicts a much simplified and enlarged version of a restaurant in Hopper’s Greenwich Village, New York neighborhood (see first image above). According to notes made by Hopper’s wife Josephine, she was the model for the woman at the counter, and the two men in suits are both Hopper self-portraits. Her notes refer to the man in the suit next to the woman as “night hawk” due to his beak-like nose; she refers to the man with his back turned as “sinister.” Hopper’s treatment of artificial light at night here and elsewhere is considered masterful. The image has been copied and parodied in popular culture, most famously by Gottfried Helnwein, whose best-selling 1984 poster Boulevard of Broken Dreams inserts Humphrey Bogart, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe for the patrons, and Elvis Presley for the waiter (see second image above), substituting celebrity kitsch for the original’s dangerous and lonely anonymity. Nighthawks, made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.75 ft. tall by 5 ft. wide, is now located at the Art Institute of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois.
1942-1943: Piet Mondrian: Broadway Boogie Woogie
[Neo-Plasticism; The Netherlands/US]
According to the self-imposed rules of Neo-Plasticism, Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, who arrived in New York from war-torn Europe in 1940, was limited to using straight horizontal and vertical lines and a palette of red, blue, yellow, white, black and gray. In Broadway Boogie Woogie, a paean to his new home of New York and its jazz-inflected rhythms, Mondrian replaced the black lines of earlier works with basic yellow, punctuated by small blocks of color that imitate Manhattan’s grid of streets and intersections with their insistent traffic, while also creating a pulsating visual rhythm. As the Museum of Modern Art’s curator writes, “These atomized bands of stuttering chromatic pulses, interrupted by light gray, create paths across the canvas suggesting the city’s grid, the movement of traffic, and blinking electric lights, as well as the rhythms of jazz.” Mondrian does not simply feed us candy-like dots and lines of primary colors, however. He offsets the color with carefully-interspersed neutral blocks of gray and white. Broadway Boogie-Woogie, one of Mondrian’s last works, was made with oils on a canvas measuring 4.2 ft. square. It is now located at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
1944: Francis Bacon: Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion
Irish-born British artist Francis Bacon considered Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, made when the artist was 35 years old, to be his first mature work of art (see first image above). Throughout his life, he tried to suppress or destroy pieces he created prior to the date of this piece, which was made in 1944 during World War II. Bacon originally intended the figures in the panels of the triptych to be included either at the base of the cross in a painting of the Crucifixion or in the predella beneath a larger, separate Crucifixion panel for an altarpiece that Bacon never made. (One art historian has even suggested that Bacon intended the three figures to replace Christ and the two thieves on their three crosses, although this is a distinctly minority viewpoint.) Each panel of the triptych depicts a non-human creature painted in sickly shades of whitish-gray, with modeling to create the illusion of three dimensionality, standing or sitting on a household item, set against a garish orange background with some black lines barely indicating the floors and walls of rooms. In the left panel, we see a creature with no limbs, a long neck, rounded shoulders and a thick head of hair, who sits on a table. The figure in the center panel stands on or near a pedestal; it has a a mouth full of teeth near the end of a long neck; a white cloth is wrapped around the part of its neck next to its mouth, which could be covering its eyes, in a possible reference to Matthias Grünewald’s 1503 The Mocking of Christ; a semicircular flap on its body could be a wing (see detail in second image). The figure in the right panel also has a mouth near the end of a long neck-like appendage, which it has opened to let out a scream or yawn at an angle that would be impossible for a human; its mouth contains a row of teeth on the upper jaw only; an ear protrudes from behind its lower jaw (see detail in third image). The figure in the right panel appears to have its front leg(s) standing on an irregularly-shaped patch of either shag carpet, porcupine fur, or grass meadow. As one critic succinctly summarized, “the subjects are anatomically and physically distorted, and the mood is violent, foreboding, and relentlessly physical.” Scholars have had difficulty linking the three figures in Three Studies to any Christian iconography and have had more luck with Bacon’s later statement that he based the figures on the Furies, ancient Greek deities who avenged crimes, particularly the killing of parents. Bacon’s source was the Oresteia Trilogy by Aeschylus, which tells of the killing of Agamemnon by his wife Clytemnestra and the killing of Clytemnestra by her son Orestes, who is then pursued by the Furies. Bacon was fond of quoting a line Aeschylus has one of the Furies speak: “The reek of human blood smiles out at me.” Another source was a 1920 book called Phenomena of Materialisation by Baron von Schrenck-Notzing, that contains photos of mediums at seances apparently exuding whitish ectoplasm (sometimes bearing the image of one or more faces) from their mouths, noses and ears (see fourth image). Bacon’s triptych was made with oil paints and pastels on Sundeala fiberboard, which was less expensive than canvas for the struggling artist. Each panel measures 3.1 ft. tall by 2.4 ft. wide. Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion is located in the Tate Britain in London.
1935-1946: Pierre Bonnard: Nude in the Bath (series)
[Impressionism; Post-Impressionism; Nabis; France]
French artist Pierre Bonnard’s idiosyncratic style borrowed elements from both the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist movements. A member of a group of French painters called the Nabis, he was best known for his daring and opulent use of color, his complex perspective and witty details. Bonnard’s process involved drawing the subject from life (sometimes taking photographs), taking notes on the colors and then taking his drawing and notes to the studio, where he painted the canvas. In 1925, he married one of his models, Marthe de Meligny, who featured in nearly 400 works, many of them intimate scenes of domestic life. De Milgny suffered from a chronic illness for which the treatment was frequent bathing, which explains the many paintings of her in the bathtub from 1925 until her death (and after, given Bonnard’s tendency to rework his paintings). Some commentators have noted that the tub takes on the role of a sarcophagus, while Bonnard’s rendering of flesh can approximate the rotting of a corpse. Others see a more benign treatment of a domestic scene. The bathtub paintings Bonnard made in the 1930s and 1940s, which all have similar titles, are considered some of his greatest achievements; they all feature colorful tiles and an eternally young de Milgny. They include:
(1) The Bather (1935), in a private collection (first image, above);
(2) Nude in the Bathtub (1935), in a private collection (second image, above);
(3) Nude in the Bath (1936), in a private collection;
(4) Nude in the Bath (1936), measuring 3 ft. high by 4.8 ft. wide, in the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in Paris (third image, above);
(5) The Large Bath (Nude) (1937-1939), measuring 3 ft. high by 4.7 ft. wide, in a private collection; and
(6) Nude in Bathtub (Nude in the Bath and Small Dog) (1941-1946), measuring 4 ft. high by 4.9 ft. wide, in the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (fourth image, above).
1946: Salvador Dali: The Temptation of St. Anthony [Surrealism; Spain/US]
To understand Spanish Surrealist Salvador Dalí’s 1946 painting The Temptation of St. Anthony, we must first look to Hollywood. Dalí was living and working in New York City when a movie company announced a contest: it was inviting artists to submit paintings on the theme of The Temptation of St. Anthony. The winner would have his or her painting prominently displayed in The Private Affairs of Bel Ami, a dramatic film set in 19th Century France and based on Guy de Maupassant’s novel Bel-Ami. Dalí was undoubtedly the most famous of the eleven artists who submitted paintings, but in the end he lost to German Surrealist Max Ernst’s less aggressively sexual take on the subject. The contest results notwithstanding, Dalí’s entry is a remarkable work that grapples with the connection between the earthly and the spiritual spheres. According to Christian tradition, St. Anthony the Great shed his possessions and went to the desert, where Satan tempted him with the sinful pleasures of the world. St. Anthony suffered terribly, but in the end his faith allowed him to follow God and reject Satan. Dalí’s Surrealist Temptation confronts St. Anthony with a parade of giant animals (see first image above). A powerful horse leads the way, followed by five elephants on long, spider-like legs, each carrying its own burden: (1) the first elephant carries the golden cup of lust, with a buxom nude woman barely balanced on top; (2) the second and fifth elephants carry obelisks on their backs that appear to be based on Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s 1667 sculpture Elephant and Obelisk in Rome’s Piazza della Minerva (see second image above); the obelisk carried by the fifth elephant, who lags behind the others, is partially obscured by clouds; (3) the third and fourth elephants carry Renaissance Venetian villas in the style of Andrea Palladio, one of which displays a nude female torso in the window. In addition to the parade, there are five humans on the ground, one white floating angel-like figure, and a human figure on a hassock-shaped cloud. On top of another dark cloud is a collection of buildings that scholars have identified as part of the Escorial, one-time center of Spanish political and religious power. The major temptations, then, appear to be lust for sex (horse, naked women, golden cup, phallic obelisks) and greed for wealth and power (horse, Venetian palladia, Escorial). St. Anthony, gaunt, straggly-haired and naked, occupies the lower left corner (see third image above). He kneels on his left leg and supports himself on what may be a stone with his left hand, while his arrow-rigid right arm and hand hold up a crucifix to the horse. The gesture appears to have caused the horse to rear up on his hind legs in fear, while he takes the opportunity to turn his head and leer at the nude woman giving herself a double breast exam (see fourth image above). Below, in a centrally-placed sideshow, a tiny man in a robe (also St. Anthony?) holds up a crucifix to another man. As in prior works, Dalí continues to use a hyperrealistic classical style to make his fantastic creatures and scenes seem realistic, but scholars believe that in The Temptation of St. Anthony and other religious paintings of his later career, Dalí also used the realism of a classic style to reveal hidden spiritual powers in the objects he painted. By coming closer to the spirituality that exists in all things, Dalí believed, he and the viewer would come closer to the divine. The Temptation of St. Anthony was made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.9 ft. tall by 3.9 ft. wide and is now located in the Musée Royaux des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, Belgium.
1948: Andrew Wyeth: Christina’s World [Contemporary Realism; US]
American artist Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World is beloved by people who don’t know much about art as a beautifully understated and profoundly moving painting, while many critics and art historians find the work drab, kitschy and overly sentimental. (For example, when the Museum of Modern Art in New York published a list of the most important works of art in its collection, Wyeth’s famous painting, which MOMA bought in 1948, was not mentioned.) Wyeth met Anna Christina Olson in the 1940s on one of his summer trips to Cushing, Maine, where Olson and her brother lived in a picturesque farmhouse on a hill. When Wyeth first saw Olson, he watched from a window while she, 55 years old at the time, slowly crawled across a field up to the house. Wyeth and his wife Betsy befriended Christina, who had a degenerative muscle disorder, possibly polio, and did not want to use a wheelchair, and he eventually decided to paint a scene with a composite figure that would represent Christina’s dignity and struggle. For the figure’s legs, torso and head, Wyeth used Betsy, then in her mid-20s, as the model. An aunt sat as the model for the figure’s hair, and Christina herself modeled for the figure’s arms and hands. Wyeth rearranged the buildings of the farm to more properly balance the asymmetrical composition. Employing a style known as magic realism, Wyeth recorded the arid landscape, rural house, and shacks with great detail, painting minute blades of grass, individual strands of hair, and nuances of light and shadow. Known for his muted palette, Wyeth’s use of pink in Christina’s dress, while conservative by Expressionist standards, emerges as a shock of vibrant color against the surrounding landscape. Wyeth’s subdued tones were in part a result of his choice of materials. In 1942, he switched from oil paints to quick-drying egg tempera, the medium of choice in Medieval Europe. Christina’s World was made with egg tempera on a gessoed wood panel measuring 2.7 ft. tall by 3.9 ft. wide. It is now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
1950: Jackson Pollock: Number 1, 1950 “Lavender Mist”
[Abstract Expressionism/Action Painting; US]
In 1947, American Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock began creating a new type of painting in which the action of making the art became a process of discovering what the painting wanted to be. He rejected representation and narrative. Inspired by Navaho sand painting (see second image above), Pollock took his canvases off the easel and placed them unstretched and unprimed on the floor of his barn. He used synthetic resin-based paints called alkyd enamels and industrial house paints, put aside paintbrushes and worked with pieces of wood, glass and metal instead. He walked, almost danced around (and on) the canvas, spilling, throwing and spraying paint over it until it reached an emotional peak. Sometimes he would hang the canvas on a wall for a time, to allow gravity to pull the paint earthward. When finished, there were layers of paint covering the canvas, thicker in some places than others. In the first years of the drip technique, the palette of the paintings wavered between black and white, on the one hand, and muted earth tones, on the other. Pollock also generally rejected descriptive titles, which implied that the painting was ‘about’ something other than itself, in favor of numbers and dates. He created in relative obscurity – although critic Clement Greenberg was an early booster – until August 8, 1949, when Life magazine asked, “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” After that, Pollock was a superstar. Greenberg is to blame for the title Lavender Mist that has attached to the drip painting that Pollock titled Number 1, 1950 (see first image). Even though there is no lavender in the painting and “Lavender Mist” sounds like a perfume or a tacky landscape painting, Pollock agreed to add it as a subtitle. The large-format canvas, measuring 7.2 feet tall by 9.8 ft. wide, contains many layers of paint, mostly black, white, russet, orange, silver and stone blue, which do create a mauve, possibly even lavender glow. Thick long streaks of black, often near the edges of the canvas, present focal points of emphasis, but, as one critic noted, “The eye is kept continually eager, not allowed to rest on any particular area.” Instead of looking at a finished product, a work that has reached its resting point of equilibrium, “everything is in flux, caught in the act of becoming”, as one scholar pointed out (see detail in fourth image). Texture is also an element that Pollock chooses to manipulate through random processes as well as conscious control. In some spots, the multiple layers of paint create a three-dimensional architecture of paint rising from the canvas (see detail in third image). Perhaps to emphasize the primitive aspects of spattering paint on a large surface, Pollock signed the work by placing his handprints in one of the upper corners, like a prehistoric cave painter. Number 1, 1950 “Lavender Mist” was made with oils, enamels and aluminum on canvas and is now located at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
1950: Jackson Pollock: Number 30 “Autumn Rhythm”
[Abstract Expressionism/Action Painting; US]
Nineteen fifty was a watershed year for Jackson Pollock and his new way of painting (called by some “drip” or “poured” painting, but in practice much more complex than the term implies. His solo exhibition at Betty Parsons’ gallery included Lavender Mist (the only painting he sold at the show) and a number of other large canvases from that year, including the painting Pollock called Number 30 but which has acquired the somewhat banal subtitle “Autumn Rhythm.” Pollock began Autumn Rhythm and his other large paintings from 1950 by first laying down a linear architecture with black paint on an unprimed canvas, and then applying successive overlayers using various colors. As with One: Number 31, 1950, Autumn Rhythm‘s palette is limited to black, white, and muted shades of gray, brown, green and turquoise. The emphasis is less on color than on the interplay of line and the contrasts between the linear structure and the areas of overlapping and pooling paint. Made with oil, enamel and aluminum and measuring 7.25 ft. tall by 9.8 ft. long, Number 30 “Autumn Rhythm” is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (see second image showing the painting on display).
1950: Jackson Pollock: One: Number 31, 1950 [Abstract Expressionism/Action Painting; US]
Some people want to believe that Jackson Pollock was an idiot savant or a pure automatic artist, whose works are the result of unconscious chance processes, like a natural landscape, not made by human hands. But the evidence proves otherwise. Although chance plays a role in every drip painting, including One: Number 31, 1950, Pollock controlled the timing and extent of any random factors, and he made many important conscious choices throughout the process. A slow movement created a thick line; a quick flick of the wrist, a thin one. Pollock also chose how big to make the canvas; which colors to use; when to use glossy paint, when to use matte; when to allow paint to puddle; when to prop up the painting to allow puddles to drip down; whether to paint wet on wet, or wait for the paint to dry before making another pass over the canvas. In One: Number 31, 1950 (at 8.8 ft. tall by 17.4 ft. long, it is one of Pollock’s largest canvases), “calligraphic looping cords of color animate and energize every inch of the composition, which seems to expand visually despite its enormous size,” one critic noted, adding that, “The density of interlacing liquid threads of paint is balanced and offset by puddles of muted colors and by allover spattering.” Unlike some of Pollock’s drip paintings, One: Number 31, 1950 has a well-defined border – another conscious choice. The painting was made with oils and enamels on canvas and is now located at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
1950: Jackson Pollock: Number 32, 1950 [Abstract Expressionism/Action Painting; US]
During the late 1940s and early 1950s, a debate arose among critics who reviewed Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings (also known as action paintings). Both groups agreed that Pollock was creating works of art, but one school believed that Pollock was a performance artist and that the work of art was his performance of making a drip painting. To this group, the actual painting was merely an artifact or memento that resulted from the performance, but it wasn’t the work of art itself. Other critics, including Pollock’s champion Clement Greenberg, said that Pollock was creating a work of art, but that the work of art was the physical painting, not the creative process, and the painting only became a work of art when the artist had finished making it and hung it on the wall. Number 32, 1950, which Pollock created while being filmed, adding another layer to the analysis, differs from most of Pollock’s prior drip paintings in at least two respects: first, it is monochromatic, or nearly so; black is the only paint color clearly visible; second, the paint does not fill up the canvas, but instead large portions of the canvas appear to be unpainted. A close view shows that in some areas, the paint was completely absorbed by the canvas, leaving the canvas stained black; in other areas, the black paint stays on the surface, creating three dimensions. One critic described Number 32, 1950 as “spidery strands of black enamel [that] loop over a large field of white duck canvas.” Note that the lines of black paint appear to continue even after the edge of the canvas, unlike the drip paintings in which Pollock has created a defined border. Number 32, 1950 was made with enamels on a canvas measuring 8.8 ft. tall by 15 ft. wide. It is the painting that Pollock created while being filmed and photographed by Hans Namuth (see second image). It is now in the Kunstsammlung Nordhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf, Germany.
1950-1951: Barnett Newman: Vir Heroicus Sublimis [Abstract Expressionism; US]
In Barnett Newman’s 1948 essay “The Sublime is Now,” he asks the question, “If we are living in a time without a legend that can be called sublime, how can we be creating sublime art?” Vir Heroicus Sublimis (“Man, heroic and sublime”) can be interpreted as one answer to that question. Barnett’s massive canvas (7.9 ft. tall by 17.7 ft. wide) engulfs the viewer in an enormous field of saturated red that is punctuated by differently colored vertical lines that Newman referred to as “zips.” The two zips closest to the center of the painting create a perfect red square. Newman intended viewers of the painting to interact with it directly in a way that he analogized to “meeting another person.” (See viewer with Vir Heroicus Sublimis in second image.) Art critics refer to Newman’s style as chromatic abstraction, a form of abstract expressionism, like the color field painting of Mark Rothko, “color is freed from objective context and becomes the subject in itself.” (National Gallery of Art, Themes in American Art: Abstraction. May 9, 2010.) (See Mark Rothko’s 1958 color field painting No. 16 (Red, Brown and Black) in third image). Vir Heroicus Sublimis is now at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
1950-1952: Willem De Kooning: Woman 1 [Abstract Expressionism; US]
From the time that Dutch-born American artist Willem de Kooning began his series of Woman paintings in the early 1950s, they have ignited controversy. The Abstract Expressionist was accused of being a misogynist and of committing violence against women with his paintbrush. The first entry in the series, Woman I, took de Kooning nearly two years to finish. He made numerous preliminary studies and repainted his canvas several times. According to de Kooning, his inspirations were female icons through the history of art, from the faceless Venus figurines of prehistory, with their enormous breasts, thighs and buttocks, to fleshy nudes of the Renaissance and Baroque masters, and finally, sex symbols like Marilyn Monroe and other curvaceous 20th Century pin-ups. “The Women had to do with the female painted through all the ages, all those idols,” de Kooning once said. Focusing on this subject allowed him to “eliminate[ ] composition, arrangement, relationships, light – because the woman was the thing I wanted to get hold of.” Others who have analyzed de Kooning’s Women believe his art explores his complex feelings about women, including feelings of rage. Using aggressive brushwork and an intense palette, de Kooning’s Woman I is hefty, wild-eyed, menacing and ferocious, but she is also a flattened two-dimensional figure, an imaginary monster of the Id, and a fertility goddess. Instead of creating a three-dimensional space for a monumental figure, the artist forces the woman’s massive head, arms, legs, and breasts into the shallow space of the flat canvas. Paradoxically, one critic noted, the figure is “exaggeratedly, absurdly physical and at the same time not there at all.” As for technique, de Kooning puts the oil paint through its paces: depending on his needs at the time, his treatment is either thick or thin, rough or slick, opaque or translucent. He puts an arc of fluid paint here and coarse bursts of color there. Thick smears alternate with spots where the paint merely stains the canvas. Like fellow Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock, de Kooning sometimes allows pooled wet paint to drip down, adding an element of chance. A mid-20th Century American masterpiece, Woman I was made with oils on a canvas measuring 6.3 ft. tall by 4.8 ft. wide. It is now in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
1952: Jackson Pollock: Number 11, 1952 “Blue Poles”
[Abstract Expressionism/Action Painting; US]
By 1952, American Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock had been creating so-called ‘drip paintings’ (also known as action paintings) for five years, and he was about to change direction again. The drip painting that began life as Number 11, 1952 and is now generally known as Blue Poles (a name either given or approved by Pollock), which was made with enamel and aluminum paint and embedded glass on a canvas measuring 6.9 ft. tall by 16 ft. wide, marks a departure from earlier drip paintings in at least two ways. First, the color palette is strikingly bold compared with the prior work: orange and ivory splashes create a festive mood, which the blue of the ‘poles’ complements. It is the poles themselves that signal the most significant break with the past. These eight long straight bars, possibly made by dipping a length of wood in blue paint, impose a form and structure on the art work. Angled and of differing lengths, the poles compartmentalize and tame the chaotic rhythms of the swirling, dripping color around and, because they were painted last, below them. It is as if Pollock felt it was time to exert more control over the unbridled emotional upheavals of the drip technique. Like so many great works of art, Blue Poles is no stranger to controversy. According to the New York Times, fellow artists Tony Smith and Barnett Newman may have collaborated with Pollock on Blue Poles, although others (including Newman himself and Pollock’s widow, painter Lee Krasner) swore that, no matter what may have happened in the early stages, the final painting is Pollock’s alone. Another controversy arose when the government of Australia paid a record price for Blue Poles in 1973, to the confusion of the many citizens who were unaware of Pollock’s importance to modern art or who did not believe that Pollock’s work had such value. The controversy gave some public figures an opportunity to use the public’s lack of information about the painting and Abstract Expressionism as a way to score political points, but the painting came to Australia nevertheless, and is now located at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.
1953: Francis Bacon: Study After Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X
In Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, Irish-born British artist Francis Bacon transformed a 17th Century character study into a deeply disturbing modern image (see first image above). Instead of gazing at the viewer with a complex look of calm self-confidence with a touch of viciousness, the pontiff now wears the face of a horrified character from the Odessa Steps sequence of Sergei Eisenstein’s classic silent film Battleship Potemkin. (Bacon had a photo of the screaming woman pinned on the wall of his studio, like a chloroformed beetle, see second image above). The color scheme has gone from regal and ostentatious to garish, and there are various lines and shapes whose meaning is not immediately obvious. The Screaming Pope (as this and the 40+ similarly-themed paintings are sometimes called) appears to be trapped inside some kind of box or cage (it vaguely resembles a boxing ring, or, as some have thought, the electric chair), although it is not clear whether the yellow ‘ropes’ are inside or outside the Pope’s white satin gown. Below, strips of blue and tan of indeterminate nature emanate from the Pope or his robe. From above, strips of some ghastly translucent curtain hang down in front of the Pope’s face (or do they rise up?) , placing the agonized Pope behind a barrier and beyond our help – we can only watch through the translucent blinds as he suffers through an eternal moment of searing pain. And yet we continue to watch. Although Bacon is not referred to as a post-modernist, what he is doing here fits squarely within the post-modern sensibility (though perhaps without the crucial element of irony). He takes an iconic work of art and modifies it to create something entirely new and completely unlike the original, yet completely derivative, commenting on it (this is a “study”, after all), and at the same time commenting in a larger way on how artists use the art that came before them – to imitate, pay homage, parody, critique, transform, even destroy. Some art historians have suggested a political interpretation for the image: They propose that Innocent X is actually a stand-in for 20th Century Pope Pius XII, who looked the other way as Hitler ravaged Europe and slaughtered the Jews, and is now getting his comeuppance, courtesy of Bacon. Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X was made with oils on a canvas measuring 5 ft. tall by 3.9 ft. wide. It is now located in the Des Moines Art Center in Des Moines, Iowa, because, after all, Des Moines deserves a masterpiece, too. Random Trivia: It is said that Bacon’s studio walls were covered with photographs and other copies of Velázquez’s papal portrait, but when the artist visited Rome in the 1950s and finally had an opportunity to see the original Portrait of Pope Innocent X in the Galleria Doria Pamphilij, he very publicly declined.
1951-1953: Ossip Zadkine: The Destroyed City
[Abstract Expressionism; Belarus/France/The Netherlands]
In 1946, Belarus-born French artist Ossip Zadkine made a terracotta sculpture about 2.3 ft. tall of a figure raising its hands in horror, which he exhibited in Prague in 1947 under the title First Sketch for a Monument to a Destroyed Town. On the way back to France, he visited Dutch friends and toured the center of Rotterdam, which had been completely razed by German bombs in May 1940. The terracotta having broken during the trip, Zadkine made a new version of the sculpture in plaster, about 4 ft. tall, which he exhibited in Brussels and Amsterdam in 1948. In 1949-1950, after learning the Rotterdam was planning to erect a monument, he cast the maquette in bronze and retitled it Project for the Destroyed Town of Rotterdam and exhibited it in Paris and Rotterdam. In Rotterdam, the sculpture was presented with dramatic lighting in front of a photo of the 1940 destruction and won many admirers. Not surprisingly (although there was at least one powerful dissenter), when Rotterdam issued an official request for proposals, Zadkine won the commission for a monument to the destroyed city center, to be placed in a public location of the artist’s choosing. He chose the Leuvehaven section, near Rotterdam’s port, where there were few high-rises and the statue could stand unobstructed against the sky. Monument to the Destroyed City, generally known as The Destroyed City, was unveiled in May 1953 in Rotterdam. In Zadkine’s words it is “[a] cry of horror against the inhuman brutality of this act of tyranny.” Atop a 6.6 ft. tall stone pedestal designed by J.A.C. Tillema (the local official who had opposed Zadkine’s statue), a mutilated, agonized, semi-abstract bronze giant 19.7 ft. tall stares up in horror, stretching his arms to the sky. His limbs bend in painful angles, suggesting his inner torment but also a dynamic sense of movement and weight, particularly as he leans against a supporting tree trunk. A gaping hole has been torn into the center of his torso, where his heart would have been, a reminder that the bombing destroyed the heart of the city.
1954: Francis Bacon: Figure with Meat (Head Surrounded by Sides of Beef)
Figure with Meat, also known as Head Surrounded by Sides of Beef is one of Francis Bacon’s many reworkings of Diego Velázquez’s 1650 Portrait of Pope Innocent X (see second image). The work substitutes hanging sides of beef for Velázquez’s royal red draperies and converts Velázquez’s calm, assured, even ruthless Pope into a screaming, terrorized torture victim with clutching, claw-like hands and corpse-gray skin. (One critic is convinced that the figure has opened his mouth for food, not to scream.) The meat motif has a long pedigree. Bacon would certainly have been familiar with Rembrandt’s Carcass of Beef (1657, see third image), as well as 20th Century artist Chaïm Soutine’s Rembrandt-inspired Carcass of Beef (1925) and related works. Is Bacon implying that the Pope deserves this treatment? Is this, as some scholars have suggested, a Crucifixion scene? Or are we wrong in assuming that Bacon’s screaming victim is the Pope? Maybe he is just another suffering human. Let us not forget Bacon’s cheery observation, “We are meat; we are potential carcasses.” Figure with Meat was made with oils on a canvas measuring 4.2 ft. tall by 4 ft. wide. It is now located in the Art Institute of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois. Random Trivia I: In 1962, photographer John Deakin photographed Francis Bacon for Vogue magazine with his head surrounded by sides of beef (see fourth image above). Random Trivia II: In Tim Burton’s 1989 movie Batman, the evil villain known as the Joker (played by Jack Nicholson) takes over an art museum and destroys dozens of priceless masterpieces. When he gets to Bacon’s Figure with Meat, he tells his henchman, “I kinda like this one, Bob. Leave it.”
1949-1955: René Magritte: Empire of Light (series) [Surrealism; Belgium]
Belgian Surrealist René Magritte made seventeen oil and ten gouache versions of L’Empire Des Lumières (known as The Empire of Light, The Empire of Lights or The Dominion of Light), most of them between 1949 and 1955. Each painting in the series depicts a nocturnal street scene with houses and trees. (As the series progressed, the settings, originally urban, became more suburban.) In the center of the canvas, a streetlamp illuminates a house, which is often shuttered. Some of the paintings show artificial light coming from behind residential windows. Above the nighttime streetscape is a daytime skyscape, which shows a bright blue sky streaked with billowing white clouds. As with other works by Magritte and the Surrealists generally, an impossible scene is rendered very realistically. According to one theory, the experience of simultaneous day and night not only collides with the viewer’s understanding of reality, but also triggers an emotional reaction of fear, unease and distrust of the day, a reaction usually associated with the night. (Magritte had a more positive spin: “This evocation of night and day seems to me to have the power to surprise and delight us.”) The Empire of Light series became very popular among Magritte collectors, who put pressure on the artist to produce more versions, leading to the multiple variations that now exist. Three versions of The Empire of Light are shown in the images above:
(1) The Empire of Light II, 1950, made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.6 ft. tall by 3.2 ft. wide, now in the Museum of Modern Art in New York;
(2) The Empire of Light, 1955, made with gouache on paper measuring 7.1 in. tall by 9.8 in. wide, now in a private collection; and
(3) The Empire of Light, 1954, made with oils on a canvas measuring 3.7 ft. tall by 4.8 ft wide, now in the Musée Royaux des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, Belgium.
1954-1955: Jasper Johns: Flag [Pop Art; US]
As one exasperated critic asked when American Abstract Expressionist Jasper Johns first exhibited Flag, “Is this a flag or a painting?” The answer, of course, is “Yes.” Americans and many others recognize the object immediately. But then there is the second glance, the stepping closer and examining the object, the materials and the methods, and in some ways it is not what it seems. Flag is constructed, not sewn. It is an object, with solidity and thickness, not a piece of fabric. Its surface contains visible lumps, smears and drips of encaustic, a type of paint made from pigment and molten wax. Beneath the paint, we see strips of newspaper, and although it is difficult to decipher any of the words and pictures, there is enough to tie the construction of this art to a specific time – the early 1950s – which we know from history was the McCarthy era, when loyalty to the flag was an issue that could cost someone dearly. According to Johns, Flag began with a dream. But Johns also made a conscious decision to paint common, easily recognizable objects and symbols, things, he once said, “the mind already knows.” This choice to make art about what is common and familiar to us became a key element of Pop Art. For the artist, not having to start with a new design freed up the artist to focus on the process of making the art. In this sense, Johns was an action painter – he thought process was integral to meaning. Flag was made with encaustic, oil and newspaper on fabric mounted on three panels of plywood and measures 3.5 ft. tall by 5 ft. wide. Flag is now in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
1955: Robert Rauschenberg: Bed [Neo-Dada/Pop Art; US]
American artist Robert Rauschenberg was interested in the space between life and art. His combines took everyday objects (like the wood frame, sheets, pillow and quilt of Bed), assembled them and applied ‘art’ to them. In the case of Bed, Rauschenberg scribbled with a pencil and splattered dripping paint a la Jackson Pollock. Then he hung the resulting construction on the wall. So Rauschenberg made his bed, but he made sure that neither he nor anyone else could lie in it. This, then, was the space between life and art: a bed that looked like a work of art; a work of art that looked like a bed hanging on a wall. Art historians see Bed and other works by Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns as the beginnings of the post-modern irony of Pop Art, or at least an ironic commentary on the dominant style of the day, Abstract Expressionism. Each Abstract Expressionist had a unique individual style; Rauschenberg doesn’t care about uniqueness – he is happy to imitate Pollock. The Abstract Expressionists believed that they could imbue the artwork with the essence of their souls, the interior of their dream lives. Bed mocks such pretensions: “Here is where I dream,” Rauschenberg sneers, “Try and titrate the essence of my soul from this.” Rauschenberg’s Bed, which measures 6.25 ft. tall, 2.6 ft. wide and 8 in. deep, hangs on a wall at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
1954-1957: Alberto Giacometti: Portrait of Jean Genet [Existentialism; France]
Swiss artist Albert Giacometti painted three oil portraits of French writer Jean Genet between 1954 and 1957. A gifted writer, Genet was notorious for a 1949 memoir in which he shocked Parisians by detailing his homosexual lifestyle and his endeavors as a thief, burglar and male prostitute. Reportedly, Giacometti saw Genet sitting in a Paris café and was so struck by his face and bald head that he asked to paint his portrait. Of the three portraits, one is full-length, the other two are half-length; all three show Genet facing forward at some distance from the artist. According to art historians, the Genet portraits share certain elements with the rest of Giacometti’s work during this period: (1) the use of multiple lines to create an image; (2) the posture of the model; (3) the structuring of space, (4) the distinct framing device and (5) the overt emphasis in the treatment of the head and eyes. In these portraits, Giacometti uses a reduced palette, and gradually builds Genet’s face and head with a series of small tentative brushstrokes. which creates a tense, shifting outline around the figure, not unlike the rough, highly-worked surfaces of Giacometti’s sculptures. The three Genet portraits are:
(1) Jean Genet, 1954 or 1955, made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.1 ft. tall by 1.8 ft. wide, now at the Tate Britain in London (see first image above);
(2) Portrait of Jean Genet, 1955, made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.4 ft. tall by 1.9 ft. wide, now at the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris (see second image above), and
(3) Jean Genet, 1957, made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.7 ft. tall by 2.1 ft. wide, now at the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, Switzerland (no image located).
1955-1959: Robert Rauschenberg: Monogram [Neo-Dada/Pop Art; US]
Legend has it that American artist Robert Rauschenberg would roam the streets of New York City looking for interesting trash to turn into art. In the 1950s, Rauschenberg was experimenting with ‘combines’ – neither paintings nor sculptures, these works of art put non-traditional materials and objects, including other folks’ trash, together in innovative ways. According to another story, Rauschenberg, who grew up on a farm, was forever traumatized when his father slaughtered his favorite goat. When Rauschenberg ran across a stuffed Angora goat in an office supply store, it sparked the idea for one of his most highly-regarded combines, Monogram. Just describing Monogram feels like a subversive act: A stuffed goat stands on a raised platform containing a large oil/collage painting and several objects. The goat’s face is painted with a bright mix of colors, and a car tire encircles its midsection. Directly behind the goat, a dirty tennis ball rests on the surface of the painting. A wooden police barrier and a rubber shoe heel are also involved. Some scholars have noted that goats like to consume everything, even items not normally considered consumable. Similarly, Rauschenberg believes that we can made anything into art. Others believe that the goat treats the collage/painting beneath its feet as a pasture in which to graze, and the dirty tennis ball is its gastrointestinal response to the art of the past. Artnet’s Jerry Salz calls Monogram “a love letter, a death threat and a ransom note.” Monogram was made with oil, paper, fabric, printed paper and printed reproductions on canvas, metal, wood, rubber shoe heel, tennis ball, Angora goat, and rubber tire. It measures 3.5 ft. tall by 5.3 ft. wide by 5.4 ft. deep and it is now located in the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden.
1960: Jasper Johns: Painted Bronze: Ale Cans [Pop Art; US]
American artist William de Kooning once complained/joked that gallery owner and art dealer Leo Castelli could sell anything, even a couple of beer cans. American artist Jasper Johns, famous for his reworkings of the American flag, heard the story and decided that two beer cans would make a good sculpture. A student of Dadaist Marcel Duchamp, Johns was interested in the difference between an object and an artistic representation of the object. Johns took two gold-colored cans of Ballantine Ale and cast them in bronze. One is punctured, hollow and light; the second has no holes in it and is much heavier. Johns painted the cans to look like Ballantine Ale cans and placed them on a small pedestal. The entire piece is 5.5 in. tall, 8 in. wide and 4.75 in. deep. At first glance, they appear to be real beer cans, but close inspection reveals brush strokes and blurred writing. So that no one would miss the point that these were not really beer cans, Johns titled the piece Painted Bronze, also known as Painted Bronze (Ale Cans) to distinguish it from another sculpture with the same title. Some commentators interpret the pair of cans as a representation of Johns’s close relationship with Robert Rauschenberg, which took a turn for the worse about this time when Rauschenberg moved to Florida. This theory may explain why Johns painted the word “Florida” on one of the cans. Epilogue: Although he never sold any actual beer cans, Leo Castelli sold Painted Bronze for $900. Painted Bronze is now located at the Kunstmuseum Basel in Basel, Switzerland
1962: Claes Oldenburg: Floor Burger (Giant Hamburger) [Pop Art; US]
Born in Sweden, Claes Oldenburg, who became an American citizen in 1953, is considered the foremost sculptor of the American Pop Art movement. Pop artists shared not a style but an attitude. They rejected the Academy and the introspective elitism characterized by Abstract Expressionism. They drew inspiration from Dada, especially Dada’s playful side, but not to the point of being anti-Art. In acting out this playful, anti-elitist attitude, they filled their works with the objects, images and icons of mass-produced, commercial culture, with all its crassness and cliches intact. Along with their challenge – Why can’t a soup can be art? – they also acknowledged the seductive power of consumerism. Oldenburg’s particular variation on the Pop Art attitude was to take everyday objects and transform them so that they are completely recognizable but no longer functional – except as art. He achieved this goal by using two very simple methods: (1) making the object much larger than usual or (2) making the object much softer than usual. In Floor Burger (also known as Giant Hamburger), Oldenburg used both methods. Using canvas stuffed with foam and cardboard boxes, he constructed a very soft, but very large hamburger, which he then painted with realistic colors using acrylic paints to show a bun with a meat patty inside and a pickle on top. The sight of a 4.3 ft. tall, 7 ft. wide hamburger – even one that is clearly not made of bread and meat – is bound to spark a reaction, if only amusement. Because we can’t eat it, we have time to look at it, to think about hamburgers, even food in general, from an aesthetic perspective. What will we think the next time we look at a real hamburger? Oldenburg’s sculptures of giant ice cream cones and binoculars have often elicited controversy, and Floor Burger was no different. Back in 1962, when the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Canada paid $2000 for the work, a group of students marched in protest, carrying a 9-ft-tall ketchup bottle they had made for the occasion. Oldenburg’s only comment: “I only wish they had made it out of something soft.”
1962: Andy Warhol: Campbell’s Soup Cans (series of 32) [Pop Art; US]
In 1962, Campbell’s sold 32 varieties of soup in cans. American pop artist Andy Warhol was looking for a subject for a series of silkscreened prints and a friend suggested “something you see every day, like a Campbell’s Soup can.” Warhol, a big fan of Campbell’s soup, thought it was a great idea. He stenciled a Campbell’s Soup can on paper, leaving a blank space for the name of the type of soup, and made 32 silkscreened prints with synthetic polymer paint of a red and white can on a white background, measuring 20 in. tall by 16 in. wide. He then hand-painted or stenciled the names of the individual soup flavors onto the 32 prints. The results shocked the art world, while at the same time establishing Warhol as a leader in the Pop Art movement. The mechanized process and the sameness of the results blurred the distinction between art and commerce, a blurring that would only increase later on when Warhol began using photos instead of stencils to make prints. If someone could reproduce a commercial product’s label and sell it as their own, then what was the role of originality, creativity and technical skill in making art? For art museums, a more pressing question loomed: although Warhol indicated that he preferred to have the 32 canvases stay together, he gave no instructions for displaying them. At the first exhibition, in 1962, the curator set them on shelves as if at a grocery store. When New York’s Museum of Modern Art acquired the soup cans, it displayed them in a box shape (see image, above) with the canvases arranged in order of the date that the soup variety was first issued. In 2011, however, MOMA made rearrangements to the order.
1962: Andy Warhol: Marilyn Diptych [Pop Art; US]
Just days after Marilyn Monroe’s death in 1962, Andy Warhol bought a publicity still photograph of her from the 1953 movie Niagara. This photo formed the basis for Marilyn Diptych, made with acrylic paints on a canvas measuring 6.7 ft. high by 9.5 ft. wide. The diptych consists of 50 reproductions of the publicity photo, 25 on the left, painted with bright but unrealistic colors, 25 on the right in black and white, fading as we move to the right. By titling this painting a diptych, Warhol hearkens back to the tradition of altarpieces in Roman Catholic churches of the Middle Ages; each panel of the diptych would show a scene from the life of Jesus or one of the saints. Warhol’s title tells us that he believes Monroe, a celebrity and a tragic figure, is a secular saint. The use of a publicity photo means that we are always looking at the celebrity as shaped by the Hollywood machine, not the real person. The multiple images remind us of the 24-frames-per-second that generate the illusion of reality in the movies. On the left, the Technicolor Marilyn appears as we see her in the movies and the publicity machine. On the right, we get a glimpse of the dark reality of fame, and the fading mortality of Marilyn’s star. Warhol shows that even while he is mechanically appropriating mass produced images, he can use the creative process to achieve an original and powerful result. Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych is now located in the Tate Modern in London.
1963: Roy Lichtenstein: Whaam! [Pop Art; US]
It was 1963 and, according to the Abstract Expressionists, figurative painting was dead. Or was it? The Pop Artists begged to differ. American Pop Artist Roy Lichtenstein found the salvation of representational art in comic books, advertisements and other commercial art sources. Lichtenstein was intrigued by the way these media handled highly emotional content (love, hate, war) in a detached, impersonal way, thus allowing to viewers to draw their own conclusions. Lichtenstein concentrated on creating stereotyped imagery using bright primary colors with black outlines. To add another layer of verisimilitude to his images, he added imitation Ben-Day dots, which were used in the comic book printing process. The result, according to Lichtenstein, was an image that is “supposed to look like a fake.” Whaam! is derived from a panel from a 1962 DC Comics publication called All American Men of War. Lichtenstein, who served in the Army in World War II, created a number of war images during his career. Although Whaam! appears to be an enlargement of an actual comic book panel, it is not. Lichtenstein changed the types of aircraft (borrowing from other comic book images), deleted a line of dialogue from the victorious pilot (“The enemy has become a flaming star!”), changed the color of the onomatopoetic “Whaam!”, and painted the aircraft and the explosion so they fill more of the canvas. Perhaps most importantly, Lichtenstein divided the image in half, creating a diptych in which the action on the left is separated from the consequence on the right. The result, according to Jonathan Jones of the Guardian newspaper, is a “comic image of American male freedom.” Whaam! was made with acrylic and oil paints on a canvas measuring 5.7 ft. tall by 13.3 ft. wide. It is on display at the Tate Modern in London.
1963: Bridget Riley: Fall [Op Art; UK]
As British Op-Artist Bridget Riley tells it, her goal is straightforward: “I try to organize a field of visual energy which accumulates until it reaches maximum tension.” In the early 1960s, Riley was experimenting with optical stability and instability by contrasting black and white. In Fall, from 1963, Riley first created a single perpendicular line running the length of the canvas from top to bottom that curved, first in a slow, graceful arc, but then in higher frequency arcs as it approached the lowest point. Then, she painted closely spaced repetitions of the line until they filled the entire canvas. “I wanted to put that curve under as much pressure as I could without losing its character,” Riley explained later. The resulting painting has odd visual effects on those who view it – some see movement, some see color, others become seasick. Fall was made with polyvinyl acetate paint on a hardboard measuring 4.6 ft. square. It is now at the Tate Modern in London.
1964-1966: Marc Chagall: War [Surrealism; Russia/France]
Symbols abound in Marc Chagall’s War, but even without a decoder ring, the horror and human suffering are evident. In a small Russian village, buildings burn; some people die, while others flee. A small family (Joseph, Mary and Jesus?) ride a white horse, perhaps to safety. In the upper right corner, we see the Crucifixion, and a strange being who may be the Devil, relishing the destruction. Chagall, despite (or perhaps because of) his Jewish heritage, employs Christian iconography to tell the story. War was made with oils on a canvas measuring 5.3 ft. tall by 7.6 ft. wide and is now located at the Kunsthaus Zürich in Zürich, Switzerland.
1967: David Hockney: A Bigger Splash [Pop Art/New Subjectivity; US/UK]
British painter David Hockney spent a lot of time in California during the 1960s and during that time he became fascinated with the ubiquitous phenomenon of the backyard swimming pool. He painted several small works on the subject in 1964 and 1966. Then, in 1967, inspired by a photo in a book about pools, Hockney began painting a large white duck canvas with acrylic paints, which he had recently discovered. He created a border for the painting by placing masking tape along the edges. Then, using a paint roller, he painted the large blue sky, blue water, and patio, then brushes to paint details like the trees, shrubs and chair. The modern single-story house came from a notebook of architectural sketches Hockney had made. He arranged the composition so that the border between the patio and the pool (which is left unpainted) divides the painting in half. The house and the edge of the pool all line up with the horizontal lines at the top and bottom margins of the canvas. The yellow diving board jutting out from the corner on a diagonal sends motion and energy to the central splash, and beyond it to the empty director’s chair. Presumably, the person who was sitting the chair is the same as the person who has just dived into the water. Hockney said that his primary goal was capturing and freezing the splash, which was normally a split-second phenomenon. He joked in an interview about taking two weeks to paint a splash that takes two seconds. The absence of any visible human life, yet the knowledge that there is someone underneath the water, creates a tension, as does the contrast between the calm sunny day and the violence of the splash. Hockney’s A Bigger Splash was made with acrylic Liquitex on a white cotton duck canvas measuring 7.9 ft. tall by 8 ft. wide. It is now at the Tate Modern in London. Random Trivia: Why A Bigger Splash? Because the painting is larger than two previous splash paintings made in 1966.
1967: Antoni Tàpies: White and Orange [Matter Painting; Spain]
Catalan Spanish artist Antoni Tàpies began his career as a Surrealist, co-founding the Dau al Set movement in the post-war years. In the early 1950s, his work became more abstract, and he began working in mixed media, adding clay and marble dust into the paint and incorporating paper, string and cloth into his canvases and boards so they often resembled doors, windows or gates. Described generally as ‘matter paintings’, these works shared certain features, according to critics: (1) a sense of compositional order; (2) a reliance on a variety of techniques to obtain a material density and coarseness of texture; and (3) a sober and sparing use of color, usually no more than two or three in a single work. In White and Orange, one of the best known matter paintings, Tàpies gives the painting the substantiality of a wall, while a symmetrical design has been scored into the thick plastered surface (see image above). The “X” or cruciform shape is a common feature of the artist’s works from this period, although whether the symbol has religious significance is never entirely clear. White and Orange is in a private collection. I have been unable to find details about its materials and dimensions.
1970: Robert Smithson: Spiral Jetty [Environmental Earthworks; US]
Spiral Jetty is a site-specific earthwork sculpture that American artist Robert Smithson constructed on the northeastern short of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, a site selected because of the presence of salt-tolerant bacteria and algae that turn the water a blood-red color, and also because it was far from the galleries and museums of the New York art world. The environmental sculpture, which slowly changes over time, consists of a counterclockwise coil jutting into the lake that is 1,500 feet long and 15 feet wide. In its immensity, the piece hearkens back to the ancient monuments of prehistoric times. Construction required moving 6,650 tons of rock and earth, and took six days. Spiral Jetty may be visible or submerged depending on the lake’s water level. The photo in the first image shown above was taken in April 2005 when the sculpture became visible again after three decades under water. The photo in the second image above was taken in 2011. Smithson, who died in 1973, also made a film documenting the project, also called Spiral Jetty (1970).
1948-1971: Robert Motherwell: Elegies for the Spanish Republic (series of over 150 paintings) [New York School/Abstract Expressionism; US]
American artist Robert Motherwell was 21 in 1936 when the Spanish Civil War began, but it was not until 1948 that he began his epic series of paintings entitled Elegies for the Spanish Republic. The Elegies grew out of a 1948 ink illustration that Motherwell drew to accompany a poem by Harold Rosenberg in a short-lived literary magazine. The essential form of the Elegies has remained the same since that initial 1948 illustration, as Motherwell has gone on to paint over 150 canvases in the series, some of them quite large. One or more black rectangles or boomerang-shaped swaths hang down from the top of each canvas, never touching the bottom, while one or more black oval shapes are held or inserted between them. The backgrounds are predominantly white, but sometimes brighter colors, including the colors of the Spanish Republic’s flag (red, yellow and mulberry) also appear, as do neutral grays and tans. The painting technique is such that the brush strokes – the manner of creation – are evident. Motherwell, an Abstract Expressionist, believed that non-figurative visual forms could express ideas and emotions. His Elegies to the Spanish Republic are, one critic stated, “majestic commemorations of human suffering and … abstract, poetic symbols for the inexorable cycle of life and death.” Motherwell himself described them as “a funeral song for something one cared about.” Four paintings in the series, which spans over two decades, are shown in the images above:
(1) Elegy to the Spanish Republic XXXIV, 1953-1954, made with oils on a canvas measuring 6.8 ft. tall by 8 ft. wide, now at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York;
(2) Elegy to the Spanish Republic, 1958-1961; made with oils and charcoal on a canvas measuring 5.7 ft. tall by 8.3 ft. wide, now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania;
(3) Elegy to the Spanish Republic, 108, 1965-1967, made with oils on a canvas, measuring 6.8 ft. tall by 11.5 ft. wide; and
(4) Elegy to the Spanish Republic, No. 110. Easter Day 1971, made with acrylics with graphite and charcoal on a canvas measuring 6.8 ft. tall by 9.5 ft. wide, now at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
1981: Richard Serra: Tilted Arc [Minimalism; Process Art; US]
According to Minimalist American sculptor Richard Serra, the large plaza in front of the Jacob Javits Federal Building in Manhattan served no useful purpose. It was merely a place to walk through to get to somewhere else. When the federal government solicited proposals for a public sculpture in the plaza, which was empty except for a fountain, Serra proposed a 12-ft. tall steel wall 120 ft. long and 2.5 in. thick, curved in an arc and titled toward the federal building, that would bisect the previously open plaza, blocking views and paths in both directions. The result would be a work of art that would change the entire character of the site, making the buildings part of the sculpture instead of the other way around. As time went on, the untreated steel would slowly oxidize (i.e., rust). The federal government selected Serra’s bold and confrontational design, called Tilted Arc, which was installed at the site in 1981 (see first and second images above). Almost immediately, the workers in the Javits Federal Building and other nearby offices began to protest. Tilted Arc wasn’t art, they said, it was an ugly rusting blight that inconvenienced workers, who had to walk around it to get across the plaza. After a series of hearings, at which artists and intellectuals praised the work and office workers castigated it, the General Services Administration decided to move Tilted Arc to another location. Serra sued the government, arguing that Tilted Arc was a site-specific artwork and to move it would be to destroy it. Serra ultimately failed to keep the government from removing Tilted Arc from the plaza – it was disassembled and transported to a warehouse in 1989 and, per Serra’s instructions, will not be erected again unless it is permitted to return to its original location.
1982-1986: Donald Judd: Untitled (installation of 100 mill-aluminium boxes)
When Minimalist American artist Donald Judd purchased a decommissioned Army base in Marfa, Texas, he chose two former artillery sheds to house an art installation. He modified the sheds to house the installation and designed the installation to fit the sheds. First, he replaced the garage doors with continuous walls of square windows (divided into quarters) that extend from floor to ceiling and bathe the rooms with sunlight. He also added a galvanized iron vaulted roof on top of the original flat roof. Inside the buildings, Judd installed 100 mill aluminum boxes (48 in one building, 52 in the other), each one measuring 3.4 ft. tall by 6 ft. wide by 4.2 ft. deep (see first and second images above). The boxes were constructed by the Lippincott Company of Connecticut and installed between 1982 and 1986. While the exterior dimensions of the 100 boxes are identical, each box is unique: some are whole, some are transected, some have recesses or partitions. In a 2007 Texas Monthly essay , author Jim Lewis describes how the boxes – without actually representing or symbolizing anything in particular – have lessons to give about space and time and how we perceive them. According to Lewis, “What [Judd] was after, and what he achieved, was … a specific engagement of the senses, called forth by that metal with that surface, arranged in those forms, in that building, awash in that light, in that landscape.” After spending a month at Marfa, Lewis also recognized that, sitting three-in-a-row in rooms with glass walls, the reflective metal boxes take on the role of “sundials, calendars, clocks: They measure time as elegantly as they apportion space.” Donald Judd’s Untitled (100 mill-aluminum boxes) is located at The Chiniti Foundation in Marfa, Texas. Note: The first image above is a 2009 photograph by Douglas Tuck.
1992: Jeff Koons: Puppy [Neo-Pop Art; US]
Jeff Koons is an American artist whose work includes aspects of Pop Art, Minimalism and Dada. He is known for creating artworks using the visual language of advertising and the entertainment industry, and likes to play with the boundaries of high and low culture, ‘turning kitsch into art’ as one critic put it. When Koons was excluded from the 1992 Documenta 9 exhibition in Kassel, Germany, he entered an exhibition in Arolsen, 40 miles from Kassel, and stole the show with Puppy, a topiary sculpture of a West Highland terrier measuring over 40 ft. tall, with a frame of wood and stainless steel, on which approximately 20,000 flowering plants grew. Some saw it as a “monument to the sentimental”, while Koons himself described the piece with a straight face as “a modern-day Sacred Heart of Jesus.” Koons rebuilt the sculpture in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, Australia in 1995 with a stainless steel frame and 70,000 plants. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation purchased Puppy in 1997 and installed it in front of Guggenheim Bilbao, where it remains. The 70,000 flowering plants, including marigold, begonias, impatiens, chrysanthemums, lobelias and numerous varieties of petunias, grow in 25 tons of soil, watered by an internal irrigation system. As one critic pointed out, Puppy can be read as an analogy for certain aspects of our culture, which seem out of control but are actually carefully constructed and highly contained. Peter Brant commissioned a duplicate of Puppy for the Brant Foundation Art Study Center in Connecticut. In 2000, a version of Puppy was displayed for a brief period in front of Rockefeller Center in New York. Puppy is made with stainless steel, wood (Arolsen version only), geotextile fabric, soil and flowering plants. It measures 43 ft. tall x 27.1 ft. wide by 29.8 ft. deep. Random Trivia: Basque separatists tried to blow up Puppy in 1997 just prior to its dedication at Guggenheim Bilbao, but were foiled by police, one of whom (a Basque officer) was killed.
1998: Antony Gormley: The Angel of the North [Contemporary; UK]
Angel of the North is a steel sculpture by British artist Antony Gormley that is located in Gateshead, England atop a former coal mine. It stands 66 ft. tall, with a wingspan of 177 ft. across. The wings are curved forward at a 3.5 degree angle. The body weights 110 tons; the wings are 55 tons each. Built to withstand 100 mph winds, the sculpture is anchored to bedrock 70 feet underground by 660 tons of concrete. The artist has said that one of his intentions was for the Angel to become the focus of people’s evolving hopes and fears. A bronze model of the statue (known as a maquette) used in fundraising in the 1990s became the most valuable item ever appraised on the TV show Antiques Roadshow, where it was valued at 1 million pounds in 2008. A human-sized maquette was sold at auction for 2 million pounds in 2008.
1994-2000: Jeff Koons: Balloon Dog (from Celebration series) [Neo-Pop Art, US]
Balloon Dog is a mirror-polished stainless steel sculpture with transparent color coating. Jeff Koons made five full-size versions, one each in blue, magenta, orange, red and yellow, each measuring 10.1 ft. tall by 11.9 ft. long by 3.75 ft. wide. Each Balloon Dog appears to be made by twisting a pliable (and easily punctured) balloon into the shape of a dog, but is actually a heavy, solid metallic object. Koons insists that his sculptures have no deeper meaning or hidden agenda, but art critics and scholars beg to differ. Some condemn Balloon Dog and other replications of banal objects as kitsch or crass appeals to consumer culture, while others find Koons to be a true artist who is challenging the way we view the ordinary objects of our world and what are appropriate subjects for art; challenging the divisions between highbrow, middlebrow and low brow. Koons recently collaborated with Bernardaud to make a limited edition porcelain version of Balloon Dog encased in a transparent container. The only Balloon Dog on permanent display – Balloon Dog (Blue) – is at the Broad Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Balloon Dog (Magenta) is owned by the François Pinault Foundation in Venice. The other three are in private collections.
2002: Anish Kapoor: Marsyas [Neo-Expressionism/Minimalism; UK]
Indian-born British sculptor Anish Kapoor is known for his gigantic abstract creations that permeate both physical and psychological space. In 2002, he received a commission to make a sculpture for a temporary exhibit in the cavernous Turbine Hall in the Tate Modern in London. Kapoor’s installation consisted of a single dark red structure made of specially-designed PVC stretched taut over three very large steel hoops, one at each end of the sculpture, facing out, and one in the center, over the Turbine Hall’s bridge, facing down. Kapoor called it Marsyas, after the Greek myth, famously painted by Titian, in which a satyr challenges Apollo to a flute playing competition. When Apollo wins, he flays Marsyas alive as punishment for his impudence. Although it is difficult to say that the sculpture represents Marsysas being flayed, biological analogues are difficult to avoid. For example, Adrian Searle, in his review in The Guardian, described Marsyas as “three funnelling mouths connected by a taut, intestinal tube.” The giant PVC sucking (or blaring, if one sees the ‘mouths as the bells of trumpets) creature is so large that there is no viewpoint from which one can see the entire sculpture at once. Marsyas measures 114.8 ft. tall and 492.1 ft. long. Anish Kapoor collaborated with engineer Cecil Balmond on designing and installing the piece at the Tate Modern in London where it remained on display from October 2002 to April 2003.
2005: Richard Serra: The Matter of Time [Minimalism/Process Art; US]
American artist Richard Serra practiced a form of abstract sculpture that did not require bases or pedestals. His pieces confronted the viewers in their own space, thus sparking a new relationship between sculptor and viewer: these were sculptures you could move around, sometimes move in and through. Beginning in the 1960s, Serra worked exclusively with large sheets of weathering steel, often spot-welded together, that took on the color of rust as they oxidized. For the opening of the Guggenheim Bilbao museum in 1997, he produced Snake, consisting of three 14-ft high curving sheets of steel that encouraged viewers to walk between them. For a subsequent commission by the same museum, Serra chose to build on Snake by installing the 1997 piece as the center of a string of eight steel sculptures taking on various forms. The entire multi-sculpture piece is called The Matter of Time and was unveiled in 2005 (see first and second images above). As with all Serra’s mature works, he organizes the steel plates to control the viewer’s movements through them and through the space around them. Some scholars see The Matter of Time as autobiographical, allowing the viewer to follow the evolution of Serra’s art from simple double ellipse to spiral, ending with sections of toruses and spheres, which create in some viewers a dizzying sensation. Art critic Robert Hughes, writing in The Guardian, sees more: “a marvellous complexity unfolds almost of its own inexorable will and nature from apparently simple premises which, once they are granted and enunciated, generate the form.” The Matter of Time consists of eight sculptures:
1. Torqued Spiral (Closed Open Closed Open Closed) (2003–04);
2. Torqued Ellipse (2003–04);
3. Double Torqued Ellipse (2003–04);
4. Snake (1994–97);
5. Torqued Spiral (Right Left) (2003–04);
6. Torqued Spiral (Open Left Closed Right) (2003–04);
7. Between the Torus and the Sphere (2003–05); and
8. Blind Spot Reversed (2003–05).
The Matter of Time is now part of the Guggenheim Bilbao’s permanent exhibit in Bilbao, Spain. Random Trivia: Curving the two-inch-thick sheets of steel along both the horizontal and vertical axes, as Serra required, is so difficult that only one steel mill in the world – the rolling mill in Siegen, Germany – could do the job.