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Who Are The Best Abstract Expressionist Painters?

who are the best abstract expressionist painters

The abstract expressionism art form sprung onto the scene in the 1940s and 1950s by some influential artists. Still, this genre can be traced back to having been popular for over a century.

The art form is denoted by its colourful spontaneity, gestural strokes and marks, and the ability to evoke emotion. 

abstract expressionist painting

The types of abstract expressionism include action painting and colour field painting.

Spontaneous brush strokes and gestures characterize action painting, and colour field painting is characterized by artists working with a large area of a single colour. 

Here are some of the best artists of the abstract expressionism art genre.


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Jackson Pollock

Jackson Pollock is the poster child for the Abstract expressionist movement in the 1940s and 1950s. He was well known for his drip paintings, and they were popular because of the unmatched creativity at the time.

His process coined the action painting title, and he achieved a level of fame that was comparable to what Andy Warhol would achieve decades later.

jackson pollock photo

Pollock put his canvas on the floor, pouring paint, impulsively brushing and creating his masterpieces. Pollock was a leader in the genre, and he would go on to influence future artists in their work. 

“The painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through.”

Here is an interesting video documentary on Jackson Pollock.


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Joan Mitchell

Joan Mitchell was part of the new wave of abstract expressionists who took the genre and softened it, giving it a lyrical and emotional direction.

Another action painter, she used her gestures to become a massive part of the American movement, even though she mostly worked and lived in France.

Joan-Mitchell

She was inspired by Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cézanne. She is one of the genre and eras few female creators, and she received massive critical acclaim and public recognition. 

“My paintings are titled after they are finished. I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me – and remembered feelings of them, which, of course, become transformed. I could certainly never mirror nature. I would more like to paint what it leaves with me.”

Watch this documentary, “Lady Painter”, about Joan Mitchell.


clyfford still

Clyfford Still

Clyfford Still was lesser known than his New York School peers, but he was a pioneer in the genre, creating a style of work that had little to no clear concept or subject matter.

He worked in the colour field painting form, and the common theme in his work is the struggle between nature and the human spirit.

Clyfford Still photo

He was a bit controversial, being labelled as a complicated character to deal with in the art community, as he turned his back on the New York art scene. 

“These are not paintings in the usual sense; they are life and death merging in fearful union. As for me, they kindle a fire; through them, I breathe again, hold a golden cord, find my own revelation.”


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Jacques Rosas

Jacques Rosas is a famous artist who works in many different genres, including abstract expressionism, pop art and street art.

He has become popular because of his work being placed in TV shows and films, so it reaches millions of viewers on a weekly basis.

jacques rosas photo

He has been commissioned by many celebrities and continues to be a force in the genre.


gagosian helen frankenthaler

Helen Frankenthaler

Helen Frankenthaler was a leading contributor to postwar American art. Her work has spanned and been exhibited for over six decades, and she continued to grow and adapt to an ever-changing art form.

She worked with the colour fielding technique, and she was inspired by Hans Hofmann, Greenberg, and Jackson Pollock’s work.

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Her work has been studied and has been part of many retrospective exhibitions, and it is critically acclaimed and award-winning.

“One really beautiful wrist motion that is synchronized with your head and heart, and you have it. It looks as if it were born in a minute.”

Here is a video documentary featuring Helen Frankenthaler from 1993 that you might like to watch.


woman 1 willem dekooning

Willem de Kooning

One of the most well known and esteemed abstract expressionists, Willem de Kooning adopted the abstract technique while never letting go of the human form in his work.

He admired Rembrandt, Rubens, and Ingres, but was also inspired by Picasso and Matisse.

willem de kooning photo

He embodied the reputation of an alcoholic, troubled painter, which ended up costing him much of his personal life and health. 

“Art should not have to be a certain way. It is no use worrying about being related to something it is impossible not to be related to.”

Watch this documentary called “Willem de Kooning: A Way of Living” to find out more about the artist.


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Vasily Kandinsky

Around the early 1910s, Vasily Kandinsky was one of the first abstract expressionists. Truly abstract artwork, he stated, should be “art independent of one’s observations of the external world.”

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He believed and taught that colour could be separated from any external references for his artwork purposes. 

 “Colour is a means of exerting direct influence on the soul.”

Read our article, “Concerning Spiritual Art with Wassily Kandinsky”


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Piet Mondrian

Piet Mondrian’s name is closely connected to Modern Art. His geometric squares of bright, primary colours with thick, black borders are famously known and regarded in the community.

He started his art career heavily influenced by Seurat and Van Gogh. Still, he eventually settled into his unique style.

piet mondrian

The goal of his work was to attain a spiritual connection with the divine, which forced it to become increasingly abstract. 

 “Abstract art is not the creation of another reality but the true vision of reality.”

Here is a cool video about Piet Mondrian called “A Life in 10 Snippets”.  Worth a watch!


rothko color field

Mark Rothko 

Along with Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko is one of the most famous abstract expressionists.

His style is much different than his peers, as he diffused paint over his canvas, versus the gestural brushstrokes that the genre mainly demonstrated.

mark rothko

His exemplary work consists of large blobs of paint stacked over each other and painted backdrops, with a bright contrast in colour. His goal was to evoke a range of emotions from his admirers. 

“It is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what one paints as long as it is well painted. This is the essence of academic painting. However, there is no such thing as good painting about nothing.” 

I recommend this documentary called “The Case For Mark Rothko” to learn more about the artist.


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Agnes Martin

Agnes Martin was a Canadian-born artist who is considered an innovator of minimal art. However, she thought herself an abstract expressionist.

She was consistently seeking a level of perfection in her work, working with grids, bands and little colour to express her concepts. 

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“My paintings are not about what is seen. They are about what is known forever in the mind.”

Watch this great documentary about Agnes Martin called “Beauty is in Your Mind”.


Sources for this article: 

https://www.ranker.com/list/famous-abstract-expressionism-artists/reference

https://www.timeout.com/newyork/art/best-abstract-artists-of-all-time

https://www.theartstory.org/movement/abstract-expressionism/

https://www.theartstory.org/artist/de-kooning-willem/

https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/a/abstract-expressionism

https://www.saatchiart.com/jacquesrosas

More Posts You Might Like from Our Site:

Comparing Abstract Expressionism And Pop Art

What Is Expressionism In Art?

Marianne von Werefkin – Women of Expressionism

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Henri Matisse – Father of Fauvism

Henri Matisse was a french painter, draughtsman, printmaker, and sculptor.  He was also the co-founder of the Fauvism art style, and one of the most influential painters of the 20th century.

Henri-Matisse-photograph-Alvin-Langdon-Coburn-1913

Fauvism is a way of painting which is very expressive, and uses non-realistic color schemes to depict natural scenes. This movement, although it didn’t last long, made a huge impact on future artists, like the German Expressionists.


Background

Henri Matisse was born on 31 December 1869 in Le Cateau-Cambresis, Northern France, in a grain merchant‘s family.

His way to the art world wasn‘t straight considering a fact that he didn‘t paint as a child or as a teenager.

Moreover, Matisse studied Law in Paris and after that, he returned to his hometown to practice as a court administrator. During the work there, suddenly he got appendicitis.

young henri matisse

The sickness led to that he needed to spend a lot of time at home in bed, so his mom brought him painting tools, to keep her son busy.

Probably nobody could have expected that this innocent hobby step by step will grow into a huge passion, that totally changes Henri’s life.

In later years, when he will be an experienced artist, he will describe the finding of art as “a kind of paradise”, even his decision to become a professional artist, will be a total shock to his parents.

red-room-henri-matisse


Early years in art

In 1891 Matisse returned to Paris to study art at the Academie Julian. At the beginning of his professional career as an artist, he used to paint still lifes, landscapes or copy other painter works.

He was inspired by such painters as Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin, Edouard Manet or Japanese art.

At the beginning of his career, he mostly used a darker earth-colored palette of colors, but it totally changed after he was introduced to Vincent Van Gogh‘s works.

It impacted to use way more vivid colors in his works and that led it to look them more alive and expressive. Henri learned a lot from Australian painter John Russel, who taught him the main color theory.

henri matisse art

Between 1898 and 1901 he tried a Divisionist technique, which was popular among neo-Impressionists. After a couple of years, Matisse wanter to try something new in art, so he started to work with clay and create sculptures.


Fauvism

Henri Matisse‘s name was written in art history not only because of his works in general but because of his new ideas creating art.

Together with french painter Andre Derain he created a new art style of Modern art and called it Fauvism.

Even the movement lasted only a few years between 1904 and 1908 and attained critique‘s attention of its too much usage of colors, it helped for Matisse to develop his style and left paintings such as Woman with a Hat, 1905, which is one of the traits that described him as an artist.

Matisse-Woman-with-a-Hat

Around 1906, Henri Matisse met Cubism pioneer Pablo Picasso. Both artists became close friends for many years and also shared their ideas and perspectives on art.

The main difference between these two painters was that Matisse enjoyed painting from nature and Picasso in his works reflected mostly his imagination.

Henri continued his work by creating various landscapes, portraits and still life, but now he used techniques that prevailed in Cubism. These would include more vivid lines, and things with distinctly clear edges.

fauves matisse

According to Françoise Gilot, who was a partner of Picasso and a mother of his two children, Henri liked to see things from close and even touch it and feel their surfaces, while painting them, for example, alive doves, which he adore to paint.

It helped him to reflect shapes and forms way better in his paintings. Common topics in his works were music and dance – one of the most well-known paintings is Dance I created in 1909-1910.

the-dance

In 1917, Matisse moved to Nice in France and after several years of painting, he achieved critical acclaim as a promoter of the classical tradition in French painting.


“Painting with scissors“

In the last years of his life, Henri Matisse was sitting in a wheelchair and he couldn‘t keep painting as he uses to.

matisse-wheelchair

Instead of that, he found a new way to express his creativity. He took huge scissors and started to cut various things from a paper by creating various compositions and called it “painting with scissors“.

By using this unique technique, he created an art book called “Jazz“, which combined color prints and Matisse‘s handwritten notes with his thoughts during the creating process.

matisse jazz book

This example shows, that his love for art was alive till the last days he lived and despite circumstances, an artistic person can find ways to express himself.

Further reading from our site:

Comparing Abstract Expressionism And Pop Art

What Is Expressionism In Art?

How Georgia O’Keeffe Changed The World

Alexej von Jawlensky – Abstract Heads

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Alexej von Jawlensky – Abstract Heads

Alexej von Jawlensky is a Russian Expressionist who joined German avant-garde during the early 20th century by mostly creating mesmerizing portraits.

Alexej von Jawlensky

Background

Alexej von Jawlensky was born on 13 March 1864 in Torzhok, Russia. His family moved to Moscow when he was ten years old and after he enlisted in military training, he had visited the Moscow World Exposition and got interested in painting.

That interest quickly began to grow and Alexej started to study painting in St. Petersburg. He had a sociable character, which helped him to get into touch with famous Russian painter Ilja Rapin and later with an older and richer artist Marianne von Werefkin, who made a huge impact in his later life.

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Munich – a magnet for artists

Munich was very popular for artists at that time when Alexej moved in in 1896 together with his supporter Marianne von Werefkin, who was his main sponsor to create by providing him financial and emotional support for many years.

He started to study there in the art school by famous Slovene realist painter Anton Ažbe. After much studying, he moved from an academic painter to an innovative colorist.

1911 Alexej von Jawlensky (Russian artist, 1864-1941) Spanish Woman

During his years in Munich, Jawlensky has developed his painting style and created many mesmerizing works. Next to his artistic work, he also participated as a social and active member of the German art community.

Jawlensky together with Wassily Kandinsky and Gabriele Münter created various groups of artists such as the Neue Künstlervereinigung München and the Blaue Reiter who promoted art styles, prevailed in Europe at that time.

Jawlensky‘s private life was complicated (art historians have different opinions about his relationship with Marianne von Werefkin), but in 1922 he married Werefkin‘s maid Helene Nesnakomoff with whom he already had a son Andreas.

Style

While creating his style, Alexej was influenced by Russian religious art especially by Russian icons, which reminded him of his childhood in Russia.

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A huge impact for him as an artist had other painters like a Fauve style painters Henri Matisse and Kees van Dongen. Their works gave him an inspiration about expressing emotions by using thick strokes of vivid colors.

Since Jawlensky painted mostly portraits, it was very important for him to analyze and convey his imagination of the human‘s heads shapes and forms.

On one of the most well known Jawlensky‘s works called “Blue cap“, all dominant colors are very vivid: red woman‘s blouse with the yellow dots, unnaturally bright pink skin, green and red background and blue hat – all colors merge altogether which shows a strong mood of the work.

blue cap

The manner to highlight the edges of the person‘s face and body by using a dark blue or black brush came from another expressionist Kees van Dongen who used it in his works in a more subtle way.

This portrait of a woman was painted around 1912, just before the First World War and was influenced by Fauve art, but also at the same time trying the new style Abstractionism, which started to be more and more popular in Europe.

This portrait by Jawlensky is unique because of its painting style collected and created from all the inspiration he could have got at that time. It was sold for 6 million dollars and now belongs to a private collection.

“Abstract Heads”

During his active working years, Alexej was following various art styles, including Cubism.

In his several series of paintings called “Abstract Heads”, which were created between 1918 and 1935, he painted abstract faces that combined horizontal and vertical lines and brightly painted blocks of pigment.

jawlensky abstract heads

The viewer can see the influence of Cubism in these works. For creating these type of artworks, Jawlensky was highly interested in Indian philosophy, especially Indian yogis, which inspired him to paint by forgetting any kind of individualism and focusing on the basic elements which make these paintings look organic and unique.

Alexej von Jawlensky died in 1941 when he was 77 years old. He is buried in the Russian Orthodox cemetery in Wiesbaden, Germany. Most of his works are kept at the Museum Wiesbaden, others are in other german museums.

In 2019 his works were exhibited in Gemeentemuseum, the Hague in the Netherlands and also the special exhibition, together with works of Marianne von Werefkin, called “Lebensmenschen” was opened on 22nd October 2019 in Lenbachhaus, Munich, Germany where both artists spent years together and will last until 16th of February 2020.

You May Also Be Interested In…

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Marianne von Werefkin – Women of Expressionism

Marianne von Werefkin is a Russian-German-Swiss painter, who started to paint in the Realism style and later developed her style into Expressionism.

Background

Marianne von Werefkin was born on 10 September 1860 in Tula, Russia. She started to paint at the age of fourteen and later became a student of Ilja Rapin, one of the most well known Russian painters.  Here she is in old age, pondering imponderables.

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Since her early days, Marianne faced many challenges, which contributed to creating her personality. She was seventeen when during cleaning a gun at home she accidentally shot her right hand.

This misfortune had an impact on the rest of her life as a painter because she had to use a special tool helping her to paint. Werefkin also has more issues with health such as neuralgia and hysterical epilepsy.

Early Years

Marianne von Werefkin was strongly influenced by Russian realism, which reflected in her early works. Because of her talent to create realistic works she even got a nickname – “Russian Rembrandt“.

In 1893 she painted a “Self Portrait in a Sailor‘s Blouse” – a portrait of herself looking into the distance and holding a bunch of paintbrushes in one hand and leaned on her hip with another.

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This work was created in her family‘s Blagodat Estate in Lithuania, where she used to come to visit her father and later her brother, who owned the property and where she had her first work studio.

Moving to Munich

In 1896, together with another Russian expressionist Alexej von Jawlensky, whom she met in Russia, she moved to Munich, Germany, where she studied painting.

The Black Women, by Marianne Werefkin (1860-1938), gouache on cardboard, 1910

Munich at that time was a very popular place for artists from Russia and Eastern Europe because of highly-regarded art school founded by Slovenian artist Anton Ažbe.

Unfortunately, instead of creating for herself, she focused on her friend. According to art historians, they were not married, not even a couple, so their relationship could be described only as friends, but at that time, Marianne encouraged Alexej‘s development as an artist and supported him to create. Later he became a father with the other woman whom he married and Marianne never got married or had a child.

Marianne was also known as an active member of a local artists community. She was very social and use to invite various people to her home, her salon, where happened many discussions about art and various ideas. She brought together not only artists but avant-garde writers, dancers even Russian politicians and aristocrats.

marianne von werefkin

She started to paint again after ten years in 1906 when Alexej was not a part of her life anymore and finished her first works in 1907.

Together with another famous Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, she created a Neue Künstvereinigung Munchen – an art group, which was dedicated to the Expressionism ideas.

At that time, her inspiration to create came from French post-impressionists Paul Gauguin and Louis Anquentin, also one of the most known expressionists – a Norwegian Edvard Munch.

When Marianne use to visit her family‘s Estate in Lithuania, she got the inspiration for the country‘s landscape and culture which lead her to create paintings like “The Road”, “The Family”, “City in Lithuania” or “Police Sentinel in Vilnius” (shown below).

Police Sentinel in Vilnius

Werefkin developed her painting style, which mainly consisted of vivid and dark colors. In 1910, she created a new self-portrait, which was different from painting in her early days as an artist.

This one didn‘t reflect Russian realism anymore, Marianne created her painting style influenced at that time prevailing Expressionism.

Marianne_von_Werefkin_self-portrait

The portrait is mesmerizing because of the strict look of her vivid red eyes, also red color dress and hat, yellow skin and vivid blue background and has a strong emotion, which is very specific for expressionists.

Next and Last Stop – Switzerland

Because of the First World War, Marianne von Werefkin with her friend Jawlensky moved to the neutral country Switzerland.

At first, they lived in Geneva, later in Zurich, but when Jawlensky decided to marry the mother of his child, Marianne moved to Ascona, where she lived till her death in 1938.

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Her life back then was difficult because of her living conditions – she didn‘t get enough money, so she couldn‘t paint and create as much as she wanted.

Despite her financial condition, she kept active in social life and in 1924 created an artist group “Großer Bär” which focused on discussions about art.

Exhibitions

Marianne von Werefkin‘s works as an important sign of expressionism were exhibited several times in different locations in Europe.

She together with Alexej von Jawlensky was remembered again in 2019, when the art gallery “Lenbachhaus” in Munich, Germany, where the artist spent one part of her life, created an exhibition called “Lebensmenschen”.

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This exhibition started on 22nd October and will last until the 16th of February 2020.


Thanks for reading!  Comment below!

You might like to also read:

Alexej von Jawlensky – Abstract Heads

Comparing Abstract Expressionism And Pop Art

What Is Expressionism In Art?

How Georgia O’Keeffe Changed The World

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The Impressive Doris Salcedo

doris salcedo

Doris Salcedo is from Bogotá, Colombia, and was born in 1958. Her life dramatically influences her work in Colombia, and the lives of victims of trauma in Colombia.

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She utilizes commonplace items in her installation work, such as furniture, grass, concrete, clothing, and flowers.

Some themes she has aimed to express are memory loss, pain, trauma, loss, and emptiness. Being an artist has been her lifelong dream.

Artist Dream

“I always wanted to be an artist. I cannot name a date when that came to me; it has always been there. Living in Colombia, in a country at war, means that war does not give you the possibility of distance. War engulfs reality completely. In some cases, people can be killed or wounded at war, but in most cases war just distorts your life. It throws a shadow over your entire life.”

This video should give you a closer look to get you familiarized with Doris and her beliefs.

Doris Salcedo is featured in our article, “What is Installation Art?”

She continues, “War creates a totality and you are embedded in it. It’s like being engulfed in a reality. Political events are part of everyday life here, so art and politics came to me as a natural thing, something that has been very much present in my life from the start.”

Doris Salcedo attended Bogotá University, where she received her Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1980. She majored in painting and theater.

In the early 1980s, Doris moved to New York and began sculpting, while earning her Master’s.

This is where she became influenced by other artists who were using political and challenging themes in their works.

This inspired her to draw from her home country and the heartache it had experienced with war.

She draws on her own experiences but also speaks for victims of senseless crimes and terrible issues that plague Colombia. She has interviewed victims to gain insight into their trauma to create many of her most famous pieces.

Some of her most notable installation pieces are the following:

Plegaria Muda

plegaria muda

A rough translation to ‘silent prayer,’ this piece is a series of sculptures that make up the shape of a coffin, from two handmade tables.

There is grass growing in between the tabletops. This piece symbolizes and pays tribute to the victims of gang violence, particularly the enormous gravesites where victims of gang violence are buried in Colombia.


Flor de Piel

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Created in 2013 and acquired by the Harvard Art Museum in 2014, this piece was part of her solo exhibition Doris Salcedo: The Materiality of Mourning.

The tapestry measures 340 cm x 500 cm and is made up of thousands of hand-sewn rose petals. This piece was to pay homage to a nurse that was tortured to death during the Colombian war.


Shibboleth

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Located in Tate Modern in London, her installation here was a massive crack in the flooring. She is the first artist ever to change the physical building of Tate Modern.

This piece was to symbolize the wedge between victims and the social forces that divided and armed people against one another.

It also represents a significant divide between the rich and the poor. Particularly in Colombia, there is a clear divide and brokenness between cultures, and that was meant to be evoked by this piece.


Atrabiliarios

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Made from plywood, thread, sheepskin, animal fibers, and shoes. There are six different styles of this installation piece.

In the ‘shoes’ piece, the shoes were all worn previously by victims who had been declared missing.

Families of missing women donated the items. This piece represents being “permanently suspended between the present and the past” and bringing awareness to the memory of those who are missing, or their whereabouts are unknown.

Atrabiliarios is meant to be a portrait of disappearance and survivors mentally being distraught with no closure.


Istanbul

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This installation piece is constructed from 1,550 wooden chairs piled between two buildings. The central theme behind this creation was a topography of war.

About Istanbul, she says, “Seeing these 1,550 wooden chairs piled high between two buildings in central Istanbul, I’m reminded of mass graves. Of anonymous victims. I think of both chaos and absence, two effects of wartime violence. What I’m trying to get out of these pieces is that element that is common in all of us. And in a situation of war, we all experience it in much the same way, either as victim or perpetrator. So I’m not narrating a particular story. I’m just addressing experiences.”


Unland

doris salcedo the orphan's tunic

Created from 1995-1998, Unland is comprised of three sculptures. It’s meant to represent testimonies given by children who witnessed their parents murder in the Colombian Civil War.

Doris traveled across the country to collect statements from participants and how this shaped their lives. The three sculptures are called Unland: the orphan’s tunic, Unland: irreversible witness, and Unland: audible in the mouth.

Two wooden tables are fused into one, and combined by the legs being removed on each end. There are thousands of holes in the top of the table, which has human hair and silk threads sewn in. The wood has deep cuts across it, to signal the damage done in the war.


Accolades and Importance

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Her list of accolades is impressive, to say the least. She’s been awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship, The Ordway Prize, from the Penny McCall Foundation, Velázquez Visual Arts Prize, Hiroshima Art Prize, Inaugural Nasher Prize for Sculpture, Nasher Sculpture Center, Rolf Schock Prizes in Visual Arts and The Nomura Art Award.

Doris Salcedo creates installation pieces that provoke thought and tackles tough, taboo subjects from objects with little significance.

She has played an important role in her Colombian culture, being a voice for victims of trauma and political injustices. Art has always been her passion for many reasons, and she has turned that into a lifelong career and been a guiding force in her niche.

“The way that an artwork brings materials together is incredibly powerful. Sculpture is its materiality. I work with materials that are already charged with significance, with meaning they have required in the practice of everyday life…then, I work to the point where it becomes something else, where metamorphosis is reached.”

Sources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doris_Salcedo

https://art21.org/artist/doris-salcedo/

https://art21.org/read/doris-salcedo-variations-on-brutality/

https://whitecube.com/artists/artist/doris_salcedo

https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/doris-salcedo-2695

https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/salcedo-unland-audible-in-the-mouth-t07523

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The Life & Art of Judy Chicago

An incredible career that spans five decades, Judy Chicago is an artist, author, feminist, educator, and intellectual.

judy chicago art

The Dinner Party, International Honor Quilt, The Birth Project, Powerplay, and The Holocaust Project are her most notable projects, and her art has been exhibited in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, and Asia.

Equal parts sculptor, installation artist, feminist, and harnesser of the zeitgeist, she has known her calling since a young age

Background

Judy Chicago was born in 1939 in Chicago, Illinois. Heavily influenced by her mother’s love of the arts, at the tender age of three, Judy started drawing and attended some classes at the Art Institute of Chicago.

judy chicago young

By the age of five, she knew she “never wanted to do anything but make art” and began pursuing her passion further.

“Once I knew that I wanted to be an artist, I had made myself into one. I did not understand that wanting doesn’t always lead to action.

Many of the women had been raised without the sense that they could mold and shape their own lives, and so, wanting to be an artist (but without the ability to realize their wants) was, for some of them, only an idle fantasy, like wanting to go to the moon.”

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She attended UCLA on a scholarship and graduated in 1964 with her Masters of Fine Arts. In 1965, Judy held her first solo show.

It was at the Rolf Nelson Gallery in Los Angeles, and she was one of four women who participated in that show.

Judy refuses to participate in any show that has a ‘women’ or ‘Jewish’ label attached to it, like the California Women in the Arts exhibition, as she feels that there should be no labels attached. During this time, Judy began sculpting.

judy chicago minimalist sculpture

Fresno State

As she began her experimental gallery of sculptures and drawings that were, in her words ‘minimalist,’ Judy’s work was at the forefront of the conceptual art movement in LA.

She began experimenting with lighting, pyrotechnics, and smoke to create an atmosphere for her exhibits.

She wanted to feminize and soften the playing field, and she began exploring sexuality in her work, and this became a turning point for her craft.

In 1970, Judy began to teach full-time, teaching women’s only art classes at Fresno State College.

fresno state college feminist art program 1970

It was the first of its kind in the United States, and Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro would go on to renew the Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts.

Judy is known as a leader and pioneer of feminist artists, and for a good reason.

Womanhouse was a collaborative project that used the artists’ problems as women as inspiration.

“The aim of the Feminist Art Program is to help women restructure their personalities to be more consistent with their desires to be artists and to help them build their art-making out of their experiences as women.”

womanhouse

This project displayed Judy’s own identity struggle as an artist.

Judy appears in our feature article, What is Installation Art?

The Dinner Party

The Dinner Party, possibly her most famous work, has a permanent exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. Five years and $250,000 later, this work is Judy’s triumph.

the dinner party

Tables set up in a triangle formation with 39 place settings, each commemorating an important woman in history. This piece took over the work of over 400 people to come to fruition.

Each place setting is unique, with a china plate that is hand-painted and deliberately embroidered runner. The floor beneath the table has the names of 998 women and one man who has made a mark in our history.

Each piece of artwork has an abstractly painted vulva-styled form. There was some resistance from the people in the art world for this piece, but at the time that it came out, it toured to 16 venues in 6 countries and is now a permanent fixture in Brooklyn.

Here’s a look…

The Birth Project

The Birth Project took another five years to create, finishing up in 1985.

Judy realized that there were no representations of birth in western art or none that she could immediately think of.

The Birth Project uses the iconography of women giving birth to celebrate motherhood. While motherhood was not for Judy, she was inspired by women who choose motherhood.

Powerplay

After The Birth Project, she went back to independent studio work and created Powerplay, a series of drawings, paintings, weavings, bronze reliefs, and cast paper.

This piece explored the female gaze and how power has affected men.

The Holocaust Project

The Holocaust Project, a collaboration with her husband, Donald Woodman, touched on her interest in male power in regards to the holocaust.

During this time, Judy became more interested in exploring her Jewish heritage, and her work began another shift.

In the span of eight years, she and her husband finished the piece that documented the victims of the holocaust, during a time she was facing her own personal loss.

The passing of her brother and her mother aided her in creating the visual and written art components of this piece.

The Holocaust Project explores the themes of victimization, injustice, cruelty, and oppression. There are a variety of mediums used in this project, including stained glass and metalwork.

Books

Judy has penned many books in her career, and she has been included in numerous publications. Her work has been published in a variety of languages, so she still reaches a global audience.

judy chicago beyond the flower

Her work has been the subject of articles, history texts, and her goal to create a piece of art history has been realized. Art curators and historians have studied her work, and the impact of her work will be reviewed for years to come.

At 81 years old, Judy is still holding exhibitions and talks scheduled into 2020. She even has an Instagram account that has over 31,000 followers.

She says “I love that so many young people follow my Instagram and come to my openings. It means that my work is still vital. When you’re old, that’s important.”

judy chicago

Judy Chicago has been a monumental contributor to feminist art, in a variety of mediums.

From her drawings and paintings to her incredible installation art of The Dinner Party, Judy has and will continue to inspire young artists for years to come.

‘I do not think art can change the world. I do think art can educate, inspire, empower people to act.’ – Judy Chicago

Sources:

http://www.judychicago.com

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judy_Chicago

http://www.artnet.com/artists/judy-chicago/

https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/54456.Judy_Chicago

https://www.glamour.com/story/judy-chicago-feminist-artist-interview

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Art Installations and Tradition in Japan

Les Archives du Coeur

Written by: Erika Yamao

What are art installations?

Recently, with the new technologies and materials, interesting art installations seem to be popping up in the contemporary art scene.

In a few words, an art installation is experiential art. Three-dimensional works that we can feel with our senses and they aim to offer an experience.

It’s art that we are able touch, or walk into, hear sounds from, and interact with; breaching that distance between viewer and object.

They could also be defined as a blend of art & architecture.

As we live in a time where we seem to be getting a little numb with technology, this trend seems to be appearing to reconnect us with our senses.

Art without borders

Japan, always experimenting with innovation, is holding nowadays the amazing “Borderless” exhibition by “teamLab” collective, in Tokyo.

They spread digital projections throughout the whole space allowing you to be inside the work of art.

Here’s a video guide to teamLab Borderless in Odaiba, Tokyo.

Not only the moving flower projections are mesmerizing, but the space itself; dark and filled with mirrors, paths, and sudden doors to other rooms make you wander around and get lost like in a forest, reconnecting you with the perception of your own body.

A little bit of context: Japanese appreciation for the 5 senses

The perception of the surroundings is very present in Japan in everyday life. To begin with, their Shinto religion worships all elements in nature as sacred.

Secondly, each season of the year has a strong presence, from the falling of cherry blossom petals in spring, or the red Momiji leaves that carpet the floors in autumn, the green moss that emerges from the concrete cracks in the moist summer, the heavy snow in winter, or even the natural disasters like earthquakes and typhoons give awareness of being under nature’ s world.

shinto

Also, body awareness has its roots in the synesthesia that you can experience while walking through Japanese gardens. They are made to be walked with full consciousness of the body.

Filled with slopes, hills, curved bridges, thin paths with branches of low trees to elude, ponds to cross through stepping stones. Body awareness must be involved to cross the garden.

japanese garden

Being in between worlds

Another incredible installation worth mentioning in the “Borderless” exhibition, is one named “Infinite transparency”.

A dark area with an “S” shaped longitudinal passageway is delimited by levitating transparent panels, which display animations of animal characters dancing to traditional music.

infinite transparency

The figures are ghostly. Their contours are bright green and blue, and their movements are slow and enigmatic. Some of them are interactive. But the distinctive experience of this installation is that you feel lost in between worlds.

Both the digital characters and the visitors coexist visually in the same diffuse atmosphere as you can see the people walking ahead through the translucent panels, giving them a ghost-like aspect as well.

Both realities strangely coexisting give the whole space an otherworldly atmosphere. This idea of two worlds–the world of the living and the world of the dead- mixing is a recurrent topic in Japanese culture, often seen in their anime movies.


Life memories

Meanwhile, in the Mori Art Museum, also in Tokyo, one of the most popular exhibitions held this year is “The Soul Trembles” by Shiota Chiharu.

life memories

The artist expresses a childhood memory in which she witnessed her neighbor’s house burn down in a fire.

Red or black thread take up entire spaces and engulf furniture to recreate that experience.

The day after the fire, she woke up to see a half-burnt piano standing on black ashes, and the beauty that she saw on that scene stayed with her. She utilizes thread to connect objects that crossed her memories in life.

In Japan and other Asian countries, the red thread is a symbol of connections and destiny. It comes from a legend that says that people that are meant to meet are joined by these threads.

the soul trembles

Trip inside your body

One last interesting art installation in Japan is one called “Les Archives du Coeur” (or “The Archives of the Heart”) set in Teshima Island, one of the so-called “art & architecture islands” in the Seto Inland Sea of Japan.

This one was created by a french installation-artist, Christian Boltanski, so the cultural background might be different, but it is worth mentioning because of its surreal experience.

Placed in the border of the island by the shore of the sea, there is a small and discrete wooden building. Inside, a minimalistic, silent atmosphere, like a hospital, and a lonely receptionist welcomes you. You are invited to record your heartbeat with a digital stethoscope in a room with a computer.

Next, you enter a small waiting area with a screen that displays the hundreds of names of the people that have already left their heartbeat.

After that, you can enter the main room. It is a narrow and dark space, with a single light bulb hanging from the center, and mirrors scattered on the walls. You find yourself surrounded by the soft but powerful sound of your own heartbeat, that the light from the bulb follows rhythmically.

The surreal experience is the feeling you are inside your own body. The darkness of the space and the muffled sound of the heartbeat might be similar to being inside a womb. The recordings of other people play after yours, to realize that each heartbeat is, unexpectedly, different.

Unlike the other installations, which seem to connect the visitor outside, with surroundings, other worlds, memories…., this work transports you inside, allowing you to have a kind of organic experience.

Japan has and receives all kinds of artists with different sensitivities. Art installations seem to be a strong trend finding its nest in this country where traditional culture already hosted a mindset based on interaction, harmony, and senses.

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Amrita Sher Gil – The James Dean Effect

Amrita Sher Gil is one of the most impressive and the most gifted Indian artists of the pre-colonial era.

Amrita_Sher-Gil_2

India’s Revolutionary Artist

She is considered as a revolutionary woman artist and pioneer of modern art in India, and often referred to along with Frida Kahlo for aesthetically blending traditional and Western art forms.

She was born on January, 30, 1913 in Budapest, Hungary. Her mother Marie Antoniette Gottesmann was a Hungarian-Jewish opera singer, and her father Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Majithia was a Sikh aristocrat and a Persian and Sanskrit scholar.

She developed an interest towards painting at her early childhood, by the time she was five. In 1921, Amrita’s family shifted from Hungary to the beautiful hill station of Shimla, due to financial problems.

amrita sher-gil

The young Amrita started to learn painting at the age of eight, trained under Major Whitmarsh and Beven Paterman.

A few years later, she joined a famous art school in Florence, Santa Annunziata, where she was exposed to the works of Italian artists, which furthered her interest in painting.

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Months later, Amrita and her mother returned to India.

Realizing Potential in Paris

In 1926, Amrita’s nephew Ervin Baktay, an Indologist aware of her amazing potential, played a crucial role in pushing her to pursue an artistic career.

At the age of 16, she went to Paris with her mother and started training under Pierre Vaillend and Lucien Simon at Grande Chaumiere, and received a formal education at the École des Beaux-Arts.

academie-de-la-grande

She spent five years in Paris. It was a period of experimentation, and a period of exploring her own hybrid identity. Sher-Gil was fully aware of her exotic beauty, sometimes wearing western clothing, and sometimes wearing a sari.

During the initial stages of her career, her works were profoundly influenced by Western art, reflected academic style in which she was trained. It was the Western European idiom with its naturalism and textured application of paint.

In the early 1930s, many of her pieces included paintings of her Parisian life, still life studies, nude studies, portraits of her friends and fellow students, and the significant corpus of the self portraits, for which she is often considered as narcissistic by many.

The self portraits captured the artists in her many moods-pensive, joyous and obscure, while revealing a narcissistic line in her personality.

amrita sher gil

Pitiless Eye, Melancholic Soul

In 1932, she created The Young Girls: the two women- Amrita’s sister Indira sits on the left clothed in chic European style and a French friend Denise Proutaux partially undressed figure in the foreground.

The two women, one assured the other awkward with her face buried beneath streaming hair have been as personifying two different side of the artist herself.

Sher-Gil was the youngest and the only Asian artist to be elected as an Associate of the Grand Salon in Paris. The painting was gained wide recognition and was awarded a Gold Medal at the Parisian Grand Salon in 1933.

One of Sher-Gil’s professor predicted that her works would make more sense in the East, judging by the rich colors that she usually used in her painting.

Sher-Gil created self-portraits that represented her grappling with her own identity. These paintings often reflected troubled and introvert woman caught between her Indian and Hungarian existence.

amrita sher gil self portrait

Gaugin’s Disciple

She was profoundly influenced by the simplified and symbolically charged paintings of Paul Gauguin. It became explicit in Self Portrait as Tahitian (1934), where Sher-Gil appear in a three-quarter profile naked to the waist, and looking beyond the frame of the picture.

Her body is depicted in Gauguin’s technique of the female nude with a distant, obscure expression of her face. She self-consciously plays on her status as the exotic other in Paris.

amrita-sher-gil-self-portrait-as-a-tahitian-1934-trivium-art-history

In 1934, Sher-Gil returned to India in order to find a mode of delineation appropriate to her Indian subjects.

Decoding Indian Traditions

A few years later, 1937, in order to decode the traditions of Indian art she began her journey to the south India, a journey that shaped all her future work.

Sher-Gil was deeply moved by the plight of unprivileged people and common villagers; she explored the sadness felt by people, especially women, giving voice and validity to their experience.

It would reflect in her work South Indian Trilogy (Bride’s Toilet, Brahmacharis and South Indian Villagers Going to Market) are much different from the prevalent realist watercolor mode of Indian painting at that time.

Her artistic style and technique was indeed fairly unusual in India. Influenced by the wall painting of the Ajanta Caves, she attempted to fuse their aesthetics with the European oil painting techniques.

She had learnt to incorporate Indian traditions in her work and rediscovered her purpose in painting. Once she even wrote to a friend saying that Europe belongs to the artists such as Cézanne, Picasso and Matisse while India belongs to her.

Her artistic style was in marked contrast to that of her contemporaries in India – Nandalal Bose, Abdur Rahman Chughtai and Abanindranath Tagore, who belonged to the Bengal school, as the first modern movement of Indian art.

She considered the school retrograde and blamed it for the stagnation in Indian painting of that time.

self-portrait

In the following years, her work had a tremendous impact on Indian art. As an exceptional colorist, Sher-Gil was able to achieve special effects with colors that were bold and unbridled, in opposite to the pale hues in vogue among her contemporary colleagues. 

Some of the best examples of her work such as Village Scene, Siesta or In the Ladies’ Enclosure represented the poor state of women and other unprivileged people.

tribal women amrit sher gil paintings

Understanding

The painting Three Girls, from 1935, shows melancholic women wearing passive expressions; their solemn brown faces a contrast to the vibrant reds, ambers and greens of their clothing.

The mood is dispirited – the women are waiting for something they doubt will ever come along. Sher-Gil lived between worlds, between West and East, in searching for a sense of belonging.

So, she understood the emptiness and loneliness of those women, since their moods were a certain reflection of her own.

In 1941, Sher Gil moved to Lahore, an undivided part of India, where the art was appreciated at that time. In this phase of her life, she produced some of her most known painting such as Tahitian, Bride, Hill Scene and The Red Brick House.

Amrita_20Sher-Gil_20-_20View_20From_20Majita_20Jouse_large

Living Free, Dying Young

Amrita Sher-Gil was a free spirit who led a somewhat careless life; she was bisexual and had numerous relationships.

Regarding her sexuality, her biographer Yashodhara Dalmia in Amrita-Sher-Gil: A Life (2006) wrote it was (partly) a result of her broad view of woman as a strong individual, liberated from the social conventions.

She formed an intimate friendship with the painter Marie Louise Chassany who was a fellow student at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. Some art critics believed her painting Two Women reflected their yearning for one another.

Sher-Gil saw marriage as a way to gain independence from her parents. In 1938, she married Dr. Victor Egan, her Hungarian first cousin, revealing afterward that she was pregnant; Dr Egan arranged for an abortion and performed it.

She was a close friend of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India and central figure in Indian politics before and after independence. She never painted Nehru, as she stated he was ‘’too good looking to be painted’’.

In 1941, days before her first solo exhibition in Lahore, she became ill. A few months later, she died at the age of 28.

The real cause of her death was never ascertained. The cause was believed to be complications from a second abortion performed by her husband.  Her mother accused Dr Victor Egan, for her demise.

Her unfinished works reveal a move toward abstraction and incorporate richer colors that the colors seen in her previous paintings.

The artwork of Amrita Sher-Gil has been declared as National Art Treasures by the Government of India.

In 1978, India Post released a stamp of her ‘Hill Women’’. The Indian cultural center in Budapest has been named after her. The 100th anniversary of Amrita Sher-Gil’s birth was declared as the international year of Sher-Gil by UNESCO, in 2013.

The complexities of her life made her both, an outsider and insider, as did her ambivalent sexuality and identity-pushed her to constantly reinvent her artistic style and visual language.

She sought to adjust and reconcile her enthusiastic response to traditional art-historical resources with her modern sensibility.

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The Rise of Modern Art

The history of modern art is also the history of the progressive loss of art’s audience. Art has increasingly become the concern of the artist and the bafflement of the public.

-Paul Gauguin

When Did Modern Art Begin?

The rise of modern art can be traced to the Industrial Revolution (1760-1860).  It was the period of rapid changes in transportation, manufacturing, and technology began around the mid-18th century and lasted through the 19th century. 

It was the one of the most crucial turning points in world history. It profoundly affected the economic, social and cultural conditions of life in North America, Western Europe and eventually the world.

Revolutionary forms of transportation, including the stream engine, the large machine-powered factory, the subway, and the railroad profoundly changed the way people lived, traveled and worked, expanding their worldview.

People migrated from the rural areas to the city centers to find work; the center of life from the family and village in the country shifted to the expanding urban metropolises.

In addition, other developments had also influence on arts in this period. In 1841, the American painter John Rand (1801-1873) invented the collapsible paint tube.

The Interpretation of Dreams (1889), a publication of psychologist Sigmund Freud and the idea of a subconscious had a great, epochal influence on arts, literature and philosophy at that time.

The artists began exploring dreams, personal iconography and symbolism as directions for the depiction of their subjective experiences.


The Invention of Photography

“Boulevard du Temple”, a daguerreotype made by Louis Daguerre in 1838, is generally accepted as the earliest photograph to include people.

The invention of photography offered new radical possibilities for interpretation and depiction of the world. Photographic technology advanced, and became increasingly accessible to the public.

Within a few decades, a photograph could reproduce almost any scene with perfect accuracy.

The photography became a serious threat to classical art conventions of representing a subject, as neither painting nor sculpture could capture the same degree of detail as photography.

In regards to photography’s technical precision, artists were obliged to discover new modes of expression, which led to new paradigms in the art world.

The development of photography and its allied photomechanical techniques of reproduction has had an obscure but important influence on the development of modern art, because these techniques deprived manually executed painting and drawing of their main role so far, as the only means of depicting the visible world accurately.

In earlier periods before 1800, artists were often commissioned to make artworks by institutions or wealthy patrons. The most of the art of those times depicted mythological, religious or historical scenes that told stories intended to instruct the viewer.


From Patronage to Personal

But, during the 19th century, many artists started to create art based in their own personal experience and leaning.

Instead of following the Hierarchy of Genres and being content with academic subject matters, interspersed with ’meaningful’ landscapes and portraits, artists began to create art about everyday things; about the ordinary people, places and ideas.

As a creative response to the rationalist practices and perspectives of the new ideas provided by technological advances of the industrial age, modern art intent to portray a subject as it exists in the world, according to the artist’s unique perspective and is presented by a rejection of traditional values and styles.

In the early 19th century European artists simply began experimenting with the act of observation.

All across the Europe, the artists, such as Henri Fantin-Latour and Gustave Courbet, created works that aimed to depict situations and people objectively, with the all imperfections, rather than creating idealized exposition of the subject.

This new radical approach to art would become known as Realism, a broad school of art and movement.

At the same time, the Romantics started to present landscape as they saw and felt it.

The landscapes painted by J.M.W. Turner are dramatic representations that capture the feeling of the awe-inspiring that hit the artist upon viewing the particular scene in nature.

This representation of a place in conjunction with a particular feeling was a decisive step for creating the modern artist’s unique perspective.

The other artists shifted their focus to emphasize the visual sensation of the observed subject rather than a objective representation and naturalistic depiction.


The Beginning of Abstract Impressionism

It was the beginnings of abstraction in visual art. James McNeil Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1874) and Monet’s Boulevard des Capucines (1873) are the key examples.

Claude_Monet,_1873-74,_Boulevard_des_Capucines,_oil_on_canvas,_80.3_x_60.3_cm,_Nelson-Atkins_Museum_of_Art,_Kansas_City

In the former case, the artists coupled small flacks and large splatters of paint in order to create a depiction of a night sky illuminated by fireworks; it was more atmospheric than representational.

Monet created an aerial view of modern Parisian life. In this scene, he made the pedestrians and cityscape as an ‘impression’, a visual representation of subjective and slightly abstracted perspective.

Some artists connected their work to preceding ideas or movements, but the general goal of each artist in modernism was to advance their practice to a position of a true originality.

Some of them established themselves as independent thinkers risking beyond what constituted acceptable forms of art at the time which were endorsed by traditional academies and the upper-class patrons of the arts. These personas depicted subject matters that many considered controversial or even substantially ugly.


The Rise of the Commoner

In this regard, the first modern artist who stands on his own with his distinctive style was Gustave Courbet.

Courbet scandalized the French art world by his painting Burial at Ornans (1849-50), portraying the funeral of a common man from a peasant village (his father’s uncle).

The French Academy bristled at the depiction of dirty farm workers around open grave; Courbet was ostracized for his work, but he, eventually proved to be tremendously influential to the following generations of modern artists.

The paintings of Gustave Courbet, Edouard Manet and the Impressionists represent a profound rejection of the dominant academic tradition and a quest for a more objective representation of the visual world.

The most commonly cited date that marking the birth of modern art is 1863- the year that Edouard Manet exhibited his painting Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe in the Salon des Refuses/ Salon of the Rejected in Paris.

Despite the fact it was modelled on a Renaissance work by Raphael and Manet’s respect for the French Academy, it was considered to be one of the most scandalous paintings of the period.

Modernism embraces a variety of theories, movements and attitudes whose modernism resides especially in a tendency to reject historical, traditional, or academic conventions and forms in an effort to create an art practice more in keeping with changed economic, social and intellectual conditions.

Art history tends to classify artists into units of historically connected and like-minded individuals. The approach of establishing categories is particularly suitable to well centralized movement with a single objective, such as Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism.

When Claude Monet exhibited his painting Impression, Sunrise at Parisian Salon in 1872, the painting was poorly received. Consequently, Monet and his fellow artists were motivated and united by the criticism; it was a precedent for future independent artists who sought to group together based on the same or similar aesthetic approach.

The practice of grouping artists into schools or movement in not always appropriate. For instance, Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cézanne are considered the major artists of Post-Impressionism movement.

The movement was named so because the chronological place in history as well as artists’ deviation from Impressionism. However, it did not represent a cohesive group of artists who united under a single ideological frame. In addition, some artists do not fit into any particular category, school or movement.

Despite the inconsistency, the designation of schools and movements allows the broad history of art to be broken down into segments separated by contextual factors.


The Arrival of the Avant-Garde

The progression of Modernism in art led to what is known as the Avant-Garde. The term Avant-Garde derives from the French ‘’vanguard’’, literally means advance guard- the lead division going into battle.

Most of the creative and principal artists were avant-gardes. Their objective was to improve practices and ideas of art and to challenge what constituted acceptable artistic form in order to accurately communicate the artists’ experience of modern era.

From about 1890s and on, a succession of a variety of schools, styles and movements emerged that represent the core of modern art and one of the high points of Western visual culture.

The modern movements include  Realism, Romanticism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism, Symbolism, Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism, Suprematism, Constructivism, Metaphysical painting, De Stijl, Dadaism, Surrealism, Social Realism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop art, Op art, Minimalism and Neo-Expressionism.

Despite the enormous variety, most of them are ‘modern’ in their investigation of the potential inherent within the various medium for expressing an inner, spiritual, response to the changed conditions of life in the 20th century.

These conditions include the expansion of scientific knowledge and understanding, accelerated technological change, irrelevance of traditional source of value and belief and an expanding awareness of non-Western cultures.

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The Dadaistic Life of Max Ernst

Painting is not for me either decorative amusement, or the plastic invention of felt reality; it must be every time: invention, discovery, revelation. – M. Ernst

Dadaism was a movement of the grotesque, absurdity, and an expression of the modern world meaninglessness. Not only paintings, sculptures, and poems artworks, but the life of artists was an artwork itself.

Max Ernst’s life wasn’t an exception.

Early life

Maximilian Maria Ernst was born in 1891 in Bruhl, Germany as the third of nine children in a strict middle-class Catholic family. His parents were devoted Christians who were raising their children to be religious, God-fearing and capable individuals.

His father was an amateur painter and he introduced painting to Max at an early age, which will further determine his life path.

Philosophy, psychology, and psychiatry were areas that first interested him, so he went to study it at the University of Bonn.

He was visiting asylums and got fascinated with the artwork of mentally ill people. But he abandoned this studies because he realized that he had more interests in the arts, claiming that his interests included anything connected to painting.


Love for Painting

His love for painting was the main reason he decided to dedicate his life to it.

In the earliest days of his painting career, he met works of the most famous artists of all time, such as Van Gogh, Gauguin, Monet, Cezzane and Picasso, who influenced Ernst’s further work.

His favorite themes were fantasy and dreams, and he adopted an ironic style that juxtaposed grotesque elements alongside Cubist and Expressionist motifs.


War and Dada

After finishing his studies, Ernst was forced to join the German Army in World War I as a part of the artillery unit, so he was directly exposed to the drama of warfare.

The war was ruinous for this young soldier, but inspiring for him as an artist. He became highly critical of western culture and these charged emotions directly fed into his vision of the world as irrational – an idea that became the basis of his artwork.

Memories of the war and his childhood helped him create absurd, but interesting scenes in his artworks. In 1918, after returning from the war, he took painting seriously.

With Jean Arp, a poet and an artist whom he met before having to go to war, he formed a group of Dada artists in Cologne.

They edited journals and created a scandal by organizing a Dada exhibit in a public restroom. More important are his collages and photomontages he started making in 1919.

His collages represent an important phase of Dadaist art.


Collages

He was using different materials in creating collages, such as illustrated catalogs, photographs of various animals, drawings etc, which resulted in creating somewhat futuristic images.

One of these compositions is Here everything is still floating (1920), a startlingly illogical composition made of cutout photographs of insects, fish and anatomical drawings ingeniously arranged to suggest the multiple identities of the things represented.

He approached descriptive expression with his collages. Besides that, a three-dimensional spatial perspective and dreaming illusionism of Giorgio de Chirico heavily influenced his work.

Adjustment to his take on Chirico’s style moved him away from Arp’s plain drawings and provided a transition that later became an illusionist branch of surrealist painting.

Arp’s and Ernst’s attempts to reach “beyond painting” – Arp with his low, painted and machine-cut reliefs, and Ernst with his collages – don’t represent an attempt of anti-art, as much as a response to feeling that the pre-war art was too hermetic and aesthetic.

Their work made a base for painting-poetry that lived through Dadaism and inspired quarter century of Surrealism.

Ernst’s unique masterpieces enabled him to create his own world of dreams and fantasy, which helped him to heal his personal issues and trauma.


Surrealism

In the 1920s, Surrealism occurred.

In 1922, Ernst moved to Paris where he became a founding member of the Surrealists, the group that gathered artists and writers whose work outgrew from the unconscious.

In 1923, Ernst finished his Men Shall Know Nothing of This, known as the first surrealist painting.

He was one of the first artists to apply The Interpretation of Dreams by Freud to investigate his deep psyche to explore the source of his own creativity.

In 1929, he started using techniques of decalcomania – transferring paint from one surface to another by pressing the two surfaces together, and frottage – pencil rubbings of the things such as wood grain, fabric or leaves, to stimulate the flow of imagery from his unconscious mind.

These techniques resulted with the accidental patterns and textures that made the artist contemplating free association to suggest images he subsequently used in a series of drawings (Histoire naturelle, 1926) as well in many paintings such as The Great Forest (1927) and The Temptation of St. Anthony (1945).

Ernst gained quite a reputation despite his strange style.


Also in 1929, he turned to collage again and created The Woman with 100 heads, which represents his first collage novel.

Not long after, he created the collage novels A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil (1930) and A Week of Kindness (1934).

After 1934, his attention was oriented towards sculpture, where he was using improvised techniques just as he did in painting.

For example, Oedipus II (1934) was cast from a stack of precariously balanced wooden pails to form a belligerent-looking phallic image.


Moving to the United States

At the beginning of World War II, Ernst moved to the United States. There he joined his third wife Peggy Guggenheim, who helped him to break through American art scene, and his son, American painter Jimmy Ernst.

While living there, he concentrated on sculptures such as The King Playing with the Queen (1944), which shows the influence that African culture made on him.

He helped to form American art during the middle of the twentieth century, thanks to his ingenious and extraordinary ideas that were different from those of other artists of that time.

Ernst’s obvious denial of conventional styles and imageries in painting was what fascinated American artists.

New and innovative ways of painting interested young American artists, so this unique style of Ernst gained the attention of painters who became familiar with his work.

Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning playing chess with figures that are Ernst’s creation

Conclusion

In his later years, he divorced Guggenheim and married Dorothea Tanning, a surrealist painter who lived in Sedona, Arizona.

They were traveling to various places to learn more about different art techniques. The couple settled in France in 1953. A year after, Ernst received the Grand Prize at the Venice Biennale, a prestigious awards contest.

Max Ernst died in 1976, in Paris, only a day before his 85th birthday. His legacy lived on as he was inspiring artists throughout the world.

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