It takes a lot to draw the entire world into a war and with an event that impacts most of society, there is bound to be some ripple effects. So it’s no surprise that war has the power to influence the arts in dramatic ways. One of the key turning points was the First World War, which started in 1914 with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. In 1918 when the war ended, 9 million people were killed from over 25 different countries. Many people blamed the war on aggressive nationalism, the greed of colonialism and the quick rise of industrial technology. These ideals had been celebrated by artistic groups like the Futurists but after the war, art became more focused on the savage brutality that arose from it. War is the most destructive activity known to mankind and it purpose is to use violence to compel their opponents to submit and surrender. In order to understand it, artists have throughout history, used colour, textures and patterns to depict wartime ideologies, practices, values and symbols. In Germany, former soldiers dedicated themselves to presenting what they called the true nature of war in a work called Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity. Instead of glorifying war, these works represented a dark, destructive and savage experience. Many artists dealt with World War I by focusing on the destruction that arose from it. But artists like Duchamp and the Dadaists explored the concept that the war was caused by the emphasis of reason and logic over emotions and humanity. Their response was to reject any sense of reason. Dada art was irrational and absurd, distrustful of tradition and devoted to artistic and political anarchy. Participants in war have even used the flotsam of battle as mediums for expression, carving into bullets, shell casings and bones. These often produced unsettling accounts of the calamity that overwhelmed them. Tools of cruelty turned to testaments of compassion. Art can be more effective than news reports in drawing international attention to the plight of ordinary people at war. “When you face an art form, it is not easy to escape death,” said the director of Sarajevo based Obala Art Centre, Izeta Gradevic.
The declaration of war typically triggers practical difficulties for artists. At the very least, it brings about a wariness for the economy that relegates the arts to a minor role in society. Economic sanctions would also often severely limit the availability of supplies. During the second Sino-Japanese War, for example, Japanese artists faced restrictions not only of paint but of materials such as silk, gold and mineral pigments. However, everything from excitable patriotism to down to earth curiosity has led millions of artists into the heart of darkness. Like their countrymen, many artists, writers and intellectuals initially welcomed the war for a range of reasons. Some because of their own nationalist sentiments, others a sense of patriotic duty while others had a desire to experience an ‘adventure’ they assumed would be over in a few months, if not weeks. We know now just how naive that mindset was. Others welcomed it over a mistaken belief that after what they saw as a necessary and final conflict, oppressive political systems would disappear and a more peaceful, spiritual and anti-materialist era would begin.
Some artists, like George Grosz, had long rejected militarism and the war in general but were conscripted into service anyway. Others voluntarily enlisted to gain some control over where they were placed while others enlisted enthusiastically to show their pride or be involved. There was a melting pot of mixed emotions when it came to art and the war but because there were such a large number of artists who experienced combat firsthand, either as soldiers, medics or war artists, many produced work either at the front of the lines or based on their experiences engaging in or witnessing combat. In response to the unprecedented turmoil and trauma resulting from the war, many artists reactions changed dramatically over a short period of time as feelings of strong nationalism, enthusiasm for combat and fame or even a first optimism for a better, more democratic future, morphed into despair, feelings of loss and betrayal and rage. These feelings were directed not only at the institutions deemed responsible but also at their complicity.
Some artists that got involved in the war effort were official appointees, sent by their governments to create a record of what was happening or to offer visual products to aid morale. Voluntarily engaging in active war service could allow artists to circumvent some of the restrictions created in wartime. In fact, governments often provided willing support to artists who threw themselves into the war effort, though many suffered severe injuries and even death on the front lines. As the New York literary journal The Knickerbocker tolled out at the start of the American Civil War, “ARTISTS! Remember that your elegant brushes are recording the history of a nation.”
This required artists to serve the interests of the collective. However, many struggled to resolve the tension between artistic freedom and censorship. Was their art supposed to bolster recruitment or demonize the enemy? Were they expected to be “official war artists” (as British artists were called during the First World War) or “official recorders” (as they were renamed during the first Gulf War)?
We must also not forget the fair amount of media-based work that arose out of the war, be that from posters and commissioned works by the government or other organizations to support the war efforts and charities. A large amount of propaganda also rose out of these needs. Most of the highly controversial works were actually created independently and produced and distributed as periodicals, postcards and posters in order to either boost morale or demean the enemy. Or both. Because of the industrial revolution, prints could be distributed widely and at a much lower cost than unique artworks, and these were especially effective at influencing public opinion.
The reality of war, however, is that at its core, art that focused around it meant that they had to convey the visceral horrors of battle. The search for an appropriate language to express the chaos and carnage that resulted from modern industrial warfare led to a re-evaluation of subject matter, technique, materials and styles. Artists also had to consider their responsibility as cultural producers. While some figures fell into more modernist approaches that drew from avant-garde experimentation, others embraced more traditional, figurative styles. There were even those who bridged the gap and moved between the styles for a variety of reasons. One of the more unique art forms to arise out of the wars were medical illustrations. Sketches and photography made during conflict could be used to diagnose pathologies, aid surgical practice and assess the progress of a disease and its treatment, as well as highlight the brutality that victims suffered.
There has also been a significant shift in the theme and mood of war art over the past two centuries. Prior to the twentieth century, war artists were more likely to depict heroic tales rich in religious imagery. 19th-century British paintings revelled in depicting the sumptuous battlefield landscapes with squads of men swathed across the hills. In France, artists revered the deeds of Napolean Bonaparte and his army. Figureheads were idealized and turned into monumental heroes in art. However, artistic bitterness escalated during World War I. War was described as unspeakable, godless and hopeless. Some artists even developed an overarching narrative for the young men at war. It began with an innocent young man, head high with feelings of honour and national pride and ending with disillusionment and sorrow. To paraphrase the essayist Elaine Scarry, “to see pain in war art is to have certainty — to see heroics is to have doubt.”
From World War II a new kind of art was required. It represented “authentic” combat experience that assaulted the senses of smell, sight, hearing, taste and touch. It saw artists visually representing the sounds of grenades detonating, the smell of explosives, the metallic taste of blood and the sight of human bone and tissue strewn across the battlefield.
In these instances, art is intrinsically political. Arno Breker, often referred to as Hitler’s favourite sculptor, once declared that art has nothing to do with politics, for good art is above politics. But that shakes all accountability from a man’s shoulders who’s work inspired many to join the Nazi armies. Art can create a narrative for war, a way of telling those still at home about the horrors going on, of moving outside of government propaganda. But even when not showing the human body in its most vulnerable state, war art contemplates the victors and the defeated, the landscapes in which they moved, imagined pasts, presents and futures. The dead also lives on in the hand of the artist and the eye of the witness. War art asks people to look closely, rather than looking away.
Cubism was one of the most influential visual art styles of the early twentieth century. It was created by Pablo Piccaso and Georges Braque in Paris between 1907 and 1914. The French art critic Louis Vauxcelles coined the term Cubism after seeing the landscapes that Braque had painted in 1908. The work itself was highly abstracted and he called the geometric forms in the work “cubes”. It drew influences from many non-Western sources like African art and Primitivism, which is an art style that draws heavily on idealizing or emulating the “primitive” experience. Beginning around the 19th century, the influx of tribal arts of Africa, Oceania and Native Americans into Europe offered artists a new visual vocabulary to explore. Primitive art’s use of simpler shapes and more abstract figures differ significantly from traditional styles of European representation and it’s easy to see how the Cubists drew on these styles in their work. The stylization and distortion of Picasso’s ground-breaking Les Demoiselles d’Avignon painted in 1907 came heavily inspired by African Art, for example, and served as one of the leading paintings of the Cubist movement.
The Cubist painters rejected the concept that art should somehow copy nature, or that an artists aim was to represent their subject matter as beautifully as possible. They wanted instead to emphasize the two-dimensionality of the canvas and in that, rejected traditional techniques of perspective, modelling and foreshortening. They reduced their subject matter into flat, geometric forms, fracturing them then realigning them on a shallow, relief-like space. They often also used multiple and contradictory viewpoints. By breaking down objects and figures into distinct areas, or planes, the artist’s intention was to show these varying viewpoints at the same time to suggest three-dimensional form. This often resulted more in an emphasis on the flat surface than it did with creating the illusion of depth, but it did serve the Cubists well. Cubism was partly influenced by the late work of artist Paul Cezanne, in which he can be seen to be painting things from slightly different points of view. Picasso was also inspired by African tribal masks which are highly stylized and somewhat unrealistic, with strong, bold forms and lines.
Cubism was highly influential and presented a very new reality in paintings. It was also divided up into two distinct eras. The movement’s development from 1910 to 1912 is often referred to as Analytical Cubism. During this period, the work of Picasso and Braque became so similar that their paintings were almost indistinguishable. The mode of Analytical paintings shows how the form was broken down and analyzed by both artists. They simplified their colour schemes to a nearly monochromatic scale in order not to distract the viewer from the primary goal, which was the structure of form itself. The monochromatic colour scheme suited the complexity of the subject, which had now been reduced to overlapping opaque and transparent planes. Forms are usually quite compact and dense in the middle of an Analytical painting, getting bigger as they move toward the edges of the canvas. In their work from this period, Picasso and Braque frequently combined representational designs with letters; their favourite designs were made with musical instruments, bottles, pitchers, glasses, newspapers and the human face and figure.
Interest in this subject matter continued after 1912, during the phase generally known as Synthetic Cubism. Artworks in this phase aimed to emphasize the combination or synthesis of forms in the painting. Colour played a strong role in these works and shapes that remain fragmented and flat are larger and more decorative. This was in comparison to areas where smooth and rough surfaces would be contrasted with one another. Materials like newspaper and tobacco wrappers are pasted on the canvas in combination with painted areas. This technique, known as collage, further emphasized the differences in texture and, at the same time, asked the question of what is real and what is an illusion.
While Picasso and Braque are credited with creating this new visual language, it was adopted and further developed by many painters, from Marcel Duchamp to Jean Metzinger. Though primarily associated with painting, Cubism also had a profound influence on 20th-century sculpture and architecture. Cubism opened up almost infinite new possibilities on how the real world could be represented and was the starting point for many later abstract styles.
Picasso once said, “A head is a matter of eyes, nose and mouth, which can be distributed in any way you like.” And this particularly emphasizes his lack of interest in showing things as they are, but how they could be, which is easily the most important aspect of abstract art.
Surrealism was a visual and literary movement that flourished in Europe between the first and second World Wars. Surrealism grew primarily out of the earlier Dada movement, which, before World War 1, produced works of anti-art that deliberately seemed to defy reasonable assumptions of what art was. The Surrealists’ emphasis was on what art was capable of unlocking and the positive associations of this. Contrary to popular belief, Surrealism was not founded by Salvador Dali, though because of his outlandish nature he is easily the most well known Surrealist artist. In fact, it was Andre Breton, a poet, and art critic, who published The Surrealist Manifesto in 1924. Surrealism was a means of reuniting the unconscious and unconscious realms of experience so that the worlds of dream and fantasy could be joined by the everyday, rational world.
The Surrealists sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. They despised rationality and literary realism and were powerfully influenced by psychoanalysis. The Surrealists believed the rational mind repressed the power of the imagination, weighing it down with taboos. Influenced by people like Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, the Impressionists hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in everyday life and spur on a new thought revolution. Their emphasis on the power of personal imagination puts them within the same realm as traditional Romanticism, but unlike their forebearers, they believed that revelations could be found on the street and in everyday life.
The Surrealist impulse to tap into the unconscious mind is what led to their bizarre, otherworldly images and paintings. This combined with their interest in myth and primitivism went on to shape many later movements and the style remains highly influential today. In The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), Freud placed a substantial amount of value on the importance of dreams and the subconscious mind as a form of recognizing and understanding human emotions and desires. He exposed the complexity of sexuality, desire, and violence, both repressed and not, and this was a major theoretical platform for Surrealism.
Surrealism has been defined as “psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express – verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner – the actual functioning of thought.” This was said by Andre Breton and essentially what he was proposing was that artists are capable of erasing reason and rationality by accessing their unconscious mind. In practice, these techniques became known as automatism or automatic writing, which allowed artists to forgo conscious thought and embrace the aspect of chance when creating their art.
The imagery used by the Surrealists is probably the most recognizable element of the movement yet it still somehow remains one of the most elusive aspects to categorize or define. Each artist relied on their own recurring symbols or motifs, arising from their dreams or subconscious minds. At its most basic, the imagery used is often outlandish, out of place, confusing and uncanny. It is meant to jolt the viewer out of their own preconceived assumptions. Nature seems to be the most frequently tapped into subject matter. For example, Max Ernst was obsessed with birds and had a bird alter ego. Salvador Dali’s work often included ants or eggs and Joan Miro relied strongly on vague, biomorphic imagery.
The world of Surrealism was rife with exaggerated actions and fantastical behaviors. The artists themselves often lived their artworks and a notable example of this is Salvador Dali. During the 1936 International Surrealist Exposition held in London, Dali addressed his audience costumed head-to-toe in an old fashioned diving suit. He had two dogs on leashes in one hand and a billiard cue in the other. Mid-lecture, constrained by the scuba mask, the Spanish artist began to suffocate and flailed about for help, brandishing his arms. The audience however simply assumed this was all a part of the performance. The Surrealist poet David Gascoyne eventually rescued Dali. As art legend would have it, upon his recovery Dali simply stated, “I just wanted to show that I was plunging deeply into the human mind.” He then finished his speech and to no-one’s surprise, his accompanying slides were all presented upside down. This story truly outlines the most absurd and even clownish elements of the Surrealist movement, though Dali very much epitomized them. He was considered something of a joke figure by even the movement itself. The movement was actually a lot more serious and far-reaching than is widely known, spanning various disciplines, styles, and geographies from 1924 until its end in 1966.
It has always been considered the realm of play and artists today even refer to is as an inspiration for the creation of more fantastical and wonderful artworks that rely heavily on symbolism and conceptualism.
Fauvism was a 20th-century movement that followed from Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. It was initially inspired by the works of Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat and Cezanne, the masters of the Post-Impressionist movement. The Fauves were a loosely allied group of French painters with shared interests. Matisse emerged as a clear leader of the group and this is purely because he created such an extensive amount of work and explored the concepts of Fauvism with a fervour not seen before. The Fauvists used intense colour as a vehicle for describing light and space and who redefined pure colour and form as a means of communicating the emotional state of the artist. In these regards, Fauvism proved to be an important precursor to Cubism and Expressionism as well as a touchstone for future modes of abstraction.
One of Fauvism’s major contributions to modern art was its radical goal of separating colours from each other and allowing them to exist more independently on the canvas. Before this point colour was typically thought of as a descriptive and representational mirror of the world. However here colour shifted to establish a mood and structure within the work of art without having to be true to the natural world. Another of Fauvism’s central artistic concerns was the overall balance of the composition. The Fauves simplified forms and saturated colours to draw attention to the inherent flatness of the canvas or paper. Within that pictorial space, each element played a specific role. The immediate visual impressionism of the work was to be strong and unified on the canvas. Above all though, Fauvism valued individual expression. The artists direct experience of his subjects, his emotional response to nature and his intuition were all more important than academic theory. Even the subject matter had no bearing. There was no hierarchy of importance. Each element of the painting was in place to serve these end goals.
The term Fauvism means “wild beasts.” The intensely colourful landscape and portrait paintings of the Fauvists were often characterized by a rough application of paint rendered directly from the tube, much like the Impressionists. Their work was colourful, bright, energetic and swathed in non-naturalistic hues. To the modern eye, these could be interpreted as joyful and celebratory but these were very different times and the works were actually more savage and rough around the edges. As with most other avant-garde styles, Fauvism acquired its name through an insult. Art critic Louis Vauxcelles coined the term in 1905 after reviewing the Salon d’Automne art exhibition in Paris, which was an annual and independent showcase of progressive art. He claimed that the Fauvists were coarse and untamed with an “orgy of colours.” The name “fauve” however would go on to become a badge of honour for the artists.
One of the most important Fauvist artists was Henri Matisse. Matisse did not seem like one to rock the boat upon first meeting him, apparently. He was quite serious, intelligent and embarking on a promising career after studying law in Paris. The life laid out before him seemed quite bourgeois and planned. However, when his mother gave him art supplies to help him recover from an illness he was, in his own words, “bitten by the demon of painting.” The tone of this statement is fitting for an artist who was responsible for the first avant-garde European art movement of the 20th century. Other prominent leaders of Fauvism were Andre Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck and Albert Marquet. Derain was a French artist, painter and sculptor. His methods of painting were closely linked to Matisse but he showed a particular interest in cityscapes. Vlaminck was considered one of the principal members of the movement and took the ideas of post-impressionism into more vivid otherworldly colours. He often ignored the fine details of a painting, focusing his attention instead on violent colour and brushwork. Marquet painted in a more naturalistic style, primarily landscapes but also several portraits. Because of his more natural style he wasn’t quite in the same boat as the Fauvists colour wise, but he still adopted the richness of tone and looseness of brushstrokes that his companions had.
Despite its influential nature, Fauvism itself was a short-lived movement. Its assault on the stylistic conventions of art that came before, soon became a convention of its own. No longer was it a unique sentiment but rather the norm to break away from traditionalism and this in itself rendered Fauvism obsolete. By 1907 the word “fauves” had entered common usage in the Parisian art scene. Scores of artists branded themselves as aligned with the movement. On top of this, the Fauvist artists found themselves faced with challenges from newcomers. Matisse, for one, found himself increasingly responding to the work of Pablo Picasso. The intensity of their rivalry meant that the both needed to develop and evolve their own styles, lest they fall behind the other. Matisse began searching for a means to express greater simplicity in his art and Cezanne’s death and retrospective exhibition in 1907 compelled many painters to return to his structured and more geometric view of the world. With its emphasis on the emotional potency of colour, Fauvism had pioneered a new, 20th-century sensibility in modern art.
Post Impressionism is a predominantly French art movement that was born roughly between 1886 and 1905, from the last Impressionist exhibition to the birth of Fauvism. Post-Impressionism emerged as a reaction to the Impressionists’ naturalistic depiction of light and colour. Due to the emphasis on more broad aspects of art like abstraction and symbolic content, it separated itself from Impressionism which still stood to replicate the natural world and the things in it. The movement was led by Paul Cezanne, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Georges Seurat. The term was first used in 1906 by art critic, Roger Fry. He used the term again in 1910 when he organised Manet and the Post-Impressionists, defining it as the key development in French Art since Manet.
Post Impressionism encompasses a wide range of distinct artistic styles that all share the common idea of responding to the visuality of the Impressionist movement. They stylized variations assembled under the general idea of Post-Impressionism ranges from the more scientifically orientated Neo-Impressionist Georges Seurat to the lush symbolism of Paul Gauguin. However, all banners of Post-Impressionism focused on the subjective vision of the artist and not the representation of something as it is seen. The movement changed the landscape of the art world even further than Impressionism did. The window that was once used to view the world as it was transcended itself and became instead a window into the artist’s mind and soul. The far-reaching aesthetic impact of the Post-Impressionists influenced many groups, like the Expressionists, that arose during the turn of the 20th century as well as more contemporary movements like Feminist Art, which is very heavily centered on identity.
Post-Impressionists extended Impressionism while rejecting its limitations. They still used vivid colours, thick layers of paint and real-life subject matter but were more inclined to emphasize geometric forms, the distortion of forms for expressive effects and the use of unnatural or arbitrary colours.
Some of the key ideas of Post-Impressionism were the importance of symbolic and highly personal meanings within the paintings. For example, Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh rejected the observable world, instead looking at their memories and emotions in order to connect to the viewer on a deeper level. Structure, order and the optical effects of colour dominated the aesthetic vision of the Post-Impressionists. Rather than merely representing their surroundings, they relied upon the relationships between colour and shape to describe the world around them. Despite the various individualized styles, most of the Post-Impressionists focused on abstract form and patterns in the application of paint to canvas. Their early works leaned towards abstraction and paved the way for the radical modernist exploration of abstract art that took place in the early 20th century. Critics grouped the various styles within Post-Impressionism into two primary trends, though they were stylized in their owns ways and generally opposed each other. On one side was the structured and geometric styles that was the precursor to Cubism while on the other side was the expressive or non-geometric art that led to Abstract Expressionism.
The Post-Impressionists were dissatisfied with what they felt was the triviality of subject matter and the loss of structure in Impressionist paintings. Though, it seemed, they could not agree on a way forward with these matters. Georges Seurat and his followers fell into Pointillism, which is the systematic use of tiny dots of colours to create form and structure. Paul Cezanne set out to restore a sense of order and structure to paintings. He achieved this by reducing objects to their basic shapes while retaining the saturated colours of Impressionism. Pissaro, who was one of the original Impressionists, experimented with Neo-Impressionism between the mid-1880s and the early 1980’s. Followers of Neo-Impressionism were drawn to more modern, urban scenes as well as landscapes and seashores. Science-based interpretations of lines and colours influenced the Neo-Impressionists’ characterizations of their own contemporary art. Pisarro became quite discontented with what he referred to as romantic Impressionism, he investigated Pointillism which he called scientific Impressionism, before returning to a purer Impressionism in the last decade of his life. Vincent van Gogh used vibrant, swirling brush strokes to convey his feelings and his state of mind. Artists such as Seurat adopted a meticulously scientific approach to colour and composition.
The Post-Impressionists were often not in agreement concerning a cohesive movement. Yet, the abstract concerns of harmony and structural arrangement took precedence over naturalism, in all the works of these artists.
Impressionism was a French art movement that started in the 19th century, from around 1860. It marked a momentous break from traditional European painting. The Impressionists incorporated new scientific research into the physics of colour to achieve a more natural representation of colour and tone. In the past, art and painting focused on pure representation and less on how the light played off of the subject matter. The Impressionists were more interested in this and looked at the way that colour changed and shifted as the light did.
Impressionist art is a style in which the artist captures the image of an object as someone would see it if they just caught a glimpse of it. They painted the pictures with a lot of colour and most of their paintings were outdoor scenes. Their pictures were often quite bright and vibrant yet still captured a quality of subtlety to the colour. The artists aim would be to capture their images without detail but rather with bold colours and loose brushstrokes.
The sudden change in the look and feel of what were more traditional paintings came out of a change in methodology. Instead of focusing on pure blending and exact representation, the Impressionists applied paint in small touches of pure colour rather than broader strokes and painting outdoors was the mode of creation. Brushwork was done in a more rapid manner and broken into separate dabs in order to capture the fleeting quality of light. Although it has been noted that the process of painting ‘plein air’ or outdoors is said to have been pioneered in Britain by John Constable around 1813-17 through his desire to paint nature in a realistic way. Instead of painting in a studio, the Impressionists found that they could capture the momentary and transient effects of sunlight by working quickly. The intent was to catch a particular fleeting moment of colour and light, like when the sun touches the edges of the leaves at dawn or dances over water during a sunset. This resulted in a greater awareness of light and colour and the shifting pattern of the natural scene.
Some of the more prominent Impressionists were the artists like Edouard Manet, Camille Pissaro, Alfred Sisley, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet and Pierre August Renoir. Manet greatly influenced the development of Impressionism. He was one of the first 19th century artists to paint modern life and was a pivotal figure in the transition from Realism to Impressionism. Manet painted everyday objects whereas Pissaro and Sisley painted the French countryside and river scenes. Pissaro’s importance lies in his contributions to both Impressionism and Post Impressionism while Sisley was one of the most consistent Impressionist painters in his dedication to painting landscapes and in a plein air manner. Degas enjoyed painting ballet dancers and horse races. He is often identified with the subject of dance, more than half of his works depict dancers. However, despite being one of the founders of the Impressionist movement he rejected the term, preferring to be called a realist. Renoir loved to show the effects of sunlight on flowers and figures and particularly enjoyed feminine sensuality and beauty as a subject. Monet was one of the key founders of the Impressionist movement and one of the most prolific practitioners of the movement’s philosophy. He was interested in the subtle changes in the atmosphere but also how one expressed their own perceptions before nature.
While the term ‘Impressionist’ covers much of the art of this time, there were smaller movements within that, such as Pointillism, Art Nouveau and Fauvism, although all of these have as much leg to stand on as any other movement. The first group exhibition was in Paris in 1874 and included work by Monet, Renoir, Degas and Cezanne. The work shown was greeted with derision with Monet’s Impression, Sunrise particularly singled out for ridicule. However, the artists persevered and seven further exhibitions were then held at intervals until 1886.
At the time, there were many ideas of what constituted modernity. Part of the Impressionist was to capture a split second of life, an ephemeral moment in time on the canvas. An Impression. They abandoned traditional linear perspective and avoided the clarity of form that had previously served to distinguish the more important elements of a picture from the lesser ones. For this reason, many critics faulted the Impressionist paintings for their unfinished appearance and seemingly amateurish quality. Compared to previous genres of art making it is understandable why this was originally rejected as a mode of art-making. However, despite all of this the Impressionists kept going and it continues to be one of the most well known and popular ways of viewing and making art. They aimed to be painters of the real. To extend the possible subjects of paintings and get away from the depictions of idealized forms and perfect symmetry. They instead saw the world for what it was. Imperfect in a myriad of ways.
Dadaism was an artistic and literary movement that began in Zurich, Switzerland. It arose as a reaction to World War 1 and the nationalism that many thought had led to the war. It was very much influenced by Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, and Expressionism. The content made out of that genre was highly varied and ranged from performance art to poetry, photography, sculpture, painting, and collage. The movement fell away with the development of Surrealism but it gave rise to many of the various realms of modern and contemporary art.
Dada was the first conceptual art movement where the focus of the artists wasn’t on creating aesthetically pleasing objects but on making works that often upended bourgeois sensibilities and that asked difficult questions about society, the role of the artist and the purpose of art. In fact, the group were so intent on opposing all the norms of middle-class culture that they were often barely in favour of themselves, often crying “Dada is anti-Dada.” So the realm of dadaism could often be confusing, contradictory and in a constant state of flux. Artists like Hans Arp, for example, went against all norms of traditional forms of art making where a work was meticulously planned and completed. Arp used methods of chance in the creation of his works, an example being his artwork Collage with Squares Arranged According to the Laws of Chance, which involved his signature technique of tearing paper into rough shapes and dropping them onto a larger sheet, pasting them down where they happened to fall. Dada artists are known for their use of readymade objects – everyday objects that could be bought and presented as art with little to no interference from the artist. The use of readymade art forced questions about artistic creativity and the very definition of art and its purpose in society. The term ‘readymade’ art was first used by French artist Marcel Duchamp to describe the works of art he made from already manufactured objects. For example, Duchamp’s earliest readymade art piece was titled Bicycle Wheel and was made in 1913. This was simply a wheel mounted on a wooden stool. Duchamp particularly chose ordinarily functional and rather dull objects.
Marcel Duchamp was one of the pioneers of Dadaism. Dadaism was primarily about creating what many called ‘nonsense art’ but was, in reality, a movement that challenged ideas about what could be art and what art was. Duchamp particularly looked at turning mundane objects into sculptures. Despite working with a lot of the same themes as surrealists, he refused to actually align himself with any particular art movement. So even despite his significant contribution to the Dadaist movement, he refused to label himself as a Dadaist. This could be contributed to the idea that even Dadaism itself seemed to contradict itself and he did not want to label himself or his art for fear of falling into that. However, despite this, he is widely considered to be the father of Conceptual art. For that reason, I want to focus a little bit on who he was and what he did because it really highlights the Dada movement and what it stood for.
Marcel Duchamp was born on July 28, 1887, and died on October 2, 1968. He was a French artist whose work broke down the boundaries between works of art and everyday objects. He was a painter, sculptor and chess player, and his disinterest in conventional ways of making art led him to create his most famous works, the ‘ready-mades’ that started the new artistic revolution. Few artists can boast about having changed the course of art history the way Duchamp did. His influence on later contemporary artists was monumental and many future art movements were influenced by him.
Duchamp was raised in Normandy, in a family of artists. He moved to Paris in 1904 to join his two brothers who were also there working as artists. Duchamp earned a living by working as a cartoonist and his early drawings show his interest in both visual and verbal puns. He became an American citizen in 1955 where he became a big influence on the New York art scene.
Duchamp began to work as an artist when he moved to Paris to pursue his career. When he eventually retired from the art scene he reportedly spent his time playing chess. In 1911 Duchamp met Francis Picabia and the following year attended a theatre adaptation of Raymond Roussel’s Impressions d’Afrique, a play about the eccentric travelers of a vessel which has become shipwrecked. It had a profound effect on Duchamp. Duchamp noted that for the first time he felt that as a painter it was much better to be influenced by a writer than by another painter.
Duchamp was constantly captivated by new approaches to art and he particularly enjoyed the Fauvists, Cubists, and Impressionist for that reason. He related especially to the Cubist way of working, which focused less on representing reality and rather on reordering it. His earlier paintings, such as Nude Descending a Staircase (1912) show his interest in machinery and its connection to the body’s movement through space. His interest in crossing between genres of creativity and drawing in other disciplines for inspiration would later become one of the core ideas of Dadaism.
Dada artworks, in general, aim to present intriguing overlaps and paradoxes where the intent is to demystify artwork in a sense of accessibility. The main idea was that art did not have to be elite or cost a lot of money and this contradicted the world of art history before it, where art and being able to afford artworks was a sign of status. Even in a more modern time, seeing art meant that you had the luxury to visit a gallery and view and appreciate the work. At the same time, they tried to remain quite cryptic about the intention and concept of the works so that the viewer could interpret it in a variety of ways. The key to understanding Dada works lies in reconciling the seemingly silly, slapdash styles with the profound anti-bourgeois message.
Dada was easily the first conceptual art movement and is now considered a watershed moment in 20th-century art. Postmodernism as we know it would not exist without Dada. Almost every underlying postmodern theory in visual and written art as well as in music and drama was invented or at least utilized by Dada artists. Dada explored all the genres of art in this way, from art as performance, which overlapped with everyday life, the use of popular culture and audience participation and the act of embracing the absurd and the use of chance.
The History Of Colour
The invention of paint as we know it began as early as 40,000 years ago and consisted of combinations of soil, animal fat, burnt charcoal and chalk. This, in essence, created the basic pallete of red, yellow, brown, black and white. Since then, the history of colour has been one
long journey of discovery and exploration, some through chance and others through scientific advancement. The invention of new pigments often sparked new developments in art history, from Renaissance to Impressionism.
Because of the lack of technology and just general lack of access to pigments, paints started out as very neutral, natural toned colours. They were all made out of materials that could be found in nature. Things like natural clays, rocks as well as minerals and precious stones
would all be utilised but certain animal products could also be used as a pigment.
First used in prehistoric cave paintings, red ochre is one of the oldest pigments still used today. In the 16th century, a red pigment was discovered that came from a cochineal insect, a creature that was only found on the prickly pear cactus in Mexico. These little bugs produce
such a potent red dye that it quickly became the third greatest import out of the “New World”. Third only to gold and silver. Raphael, Rembrandt and Rubens all used cochineal as a glaze, layering the pigment on top of other red to increase intensity. Because the pigment is
non-toxic it still used today to colour lipstick and blush.
Ever since the medieval era, painters have depicted the Virgin Mary in a bright blue robe, choosing the colour both for its religious symbolism as well as its hefty price tag. Mary’s iconic hue, called Ultramarine blue, comes from lapis lazuli, a gemstone that could only be found in a single mountain range in Afghanistan. For hundreds of years, the cost of lapis lazuli rivalled even the price of gold. In the 1950s, Yves Klein collaborated with a Parisian paint
supplier to invent a synthetic version of ultramarine blue, Klein said, “Blue has no dimensions. It is beyond dimensions.”
Few artists in history have been known for their use of yellow, though William Turner and Vincent van Gogh are the most notable exceptions. For his sun-lit seascapes, Turner used the experimental watercolour Indian Yellow—a fluorescent paint derived from the urine of mango-fed cows (banned less than a century later for its cruelty to animals). For brighter touches, Turner used a synthetic Chrome Yellow, a lead-based pigment known to cause
delirium. Vincent van Gogh also painted his starry nights and sunflowers using Chrome Yellow which, in part, contributing to his declining mental health.
While the colour green evokes nature and renewal, its pigments have actually been some of the most poisonous in history. In 1775, a deadly hue called Scheele’s Green was invented, a bright green pigment laced with arsenic. By the end of the 19th century, Paris Green—a
similar mixture of copper and arsenic—replaced Scheele’s Green, enabling artists like Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir to create vivid, emerald landscapes. However, it was still highly toxic and may have been responsible for Cézanne’s diabetes and even Monet’s blindness. Unsurprisingly, it was eventually banned in the 1960s.
For centuries, the colour purple has been associated with greatness: immense power, big personalities and artistic genius. Cleopatra and Julius Caesar covered themselves and their palaces with it. Impressionists like Clause Monet became so obsessed with the colour that they were accused of contracting “violettomania” The invention of collapsible tin tubes to store premixed paint was revolutionary for the fine art world. It led to the production of nuanced, pre-mixed paint shades, such as Manganese Violet, the first affordable mauve-coloured paint that meant artists no longer had to mix red and blue to make purple.
Black is technically an absence of light. Where reds, blues, greens are examples of chromatic colours, black is achromatic. It is without hue, like white. Black was one of the first pigments ever used and over the course of art history, there have been many different kinds of black
pigment. Charcoal, which was inexpensive but produced a gritty paint that was difficult to apply. Bone black, literally ground burnt animal bones tended to have a warmer, brown-black and lamp black (burnt vegetable oil) and vine black (charred grapevines or other vegetable products) gave cooler shades. Artists like Frank Stella, Richard Serra, and Ad Reinhardt all created monochromatic black paintings, stripping the canvas of any subject matter other than the paint itself. Taken together, these painters prove that black is as nuanced a colour as any other, capable of many permutations, tones, and textures.
Of all the pigments that have been banned over the centuries, the colour most missed by painters is likely Lead White. This hue could capture and reflect a gleam of light like no other, though its production was anything but glamorous. The 17th-century Dutch method for manufacturing the pigment involved layering cow and horse manure over lead and vinegar. After three months in a sealed room, these materials would combine to create flakes of pure white. While scientists in the late 19th century identified lead as poisonous, it wasn’t until
1978 that the United States banned the production of lead white paint.
As we spoke about in our last post, the psychology of colour is a fascinating and diverse area of thought and in history, the act of using colour has often served as a way of representing something, usually within the realms of mystical, divine and royal. Colours in different cultures can also represent very different things. For example, white in Western culture represents purity and marriage whereas Asian cultures see white as the colour of mourning, grief and loss.
One must examine how colour has been used over time and how the development of technology has influenced the way we see and use colour. We are blessed to live in an age where we can walk into any old art store and find any colour under the rainbow in a tube on a shelf. And even now we have access to colours that are metallic, neon or even glow in the dark. It can be both very freeing and overwhelming at the same time. So just imagine you’re
one of the old masters, grinding up pigments made from rocks shipped from the centre of Africa. That’ll make things easier!