Thursday, September 6, 2012

Op, Pop, and Say Wha?


In terror, I cry to love "Oh, put my mind to sleep!"/ But love for me is only a mattress where I shrink/ On needles, and my blood is given to whores to drink-- Charles Baudelaire, "The Fountain" from Les Fleurs du Mal, 1857, translation by Edna St Vincent Millay, Harper Brothers, 1936

 

Several weeks ago (in our August 16th post), we started a self-guided tour of the Cyber Museum.  We introduced ourselves to artists who dabble in impressionism, surrealism, expressionism, and post-impressionism...


Our amble through the Cyber Museum continues.  We've finished our break, pitched soft drink and coffee cups in the nearest imaginary trashcan, stomped out cigarettes, straightened skirts and ties...
Dada: Marcel Duchamp, L H O O Q, 1919


Sneaking through a side entrance, we rush through an exhibit of Op and Pop Art from the mid-1900s on.  There's some pretty cool stuff here and we'll remember to come back here later on the tour.  Op Art looks pretty abstract and a lot of it is done strictly in black and white.  Creating optical illusions seems to be the intent of Op artists, causing us to think we see movement or patterns on the flat canvas...


Time magazine coined the term Op Art in 1964 to describe a showing of the artist Julian Stanczak's work.  Its editors were a bit late in coming up with such a catchy little phrase since the style had been around for several years.  (And it was a label which annoyed a good number of Op Artists who saw their work as Perceptual Art).  If we time travel back to the late 1930s, we meet Victor Vasarely who explored hypnotic patterns created by zebra stripes... 

Perceptual Art: Victor Vasarely, Zebra, 1944
 

Pop Art looks more traditional but a lot of the pieces resemble tacky paintings favored by newly rich folk.  Granny would have called some of these paintings kitsch and some of them absolutely fascinating.  A discreetly placed placard on the imagined wall of our Cyber Museum says the Pop Art movement began in the 1950s in Great Britain before crossing the Atlantic to the United States.  Its artists were like cultural anarchists who rejected traditions of fine or "elite" art.  They celebrated the banality of popular culture and mass market advertisements...
 

Looking around at paintings by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, we're half-expecting to find ourselves in an episode of the 1960s Batman TV program with comic book BIFFs and SOCKs floating through the air every time the Caped Crusader whacks the Joker or the Penguin. Or a VAAAVAAAVOOOOM!!!! when Batgirl or Catwoman cartwheels onto the set.  Everything here is pure camp.  (For trivia buffs, "camp" traces to slang French, se camper, meaning "to pose in an exaggerated style")...


Historians suggest the Pop Art movement kicked off in 1952 when Eduardo Paolozzi exhibited I Was A Rich Man's Plaything, a collage completed five years earlier, in London.  Paolozzi was a Scot by birth, the son of Italian immigrants.  He considered himself a surrealist and we see hints of Dada in his work.  Unlike many rebellious and artistic souls, Paolozzi unexpectedly found himself respected by the cultural elite, resulting in his being dubbed "Sir Eduardo" by Queen Elizabeth II in 1988...

Pop Art: Eduardo Paolozzi, I Was a Rich
Man's Plaything, 1947
 

[Dada was a movement which paved the way for surrealism.  Beginning as a reaction to the carnage and horror created by World War I, Dada praised nonsense and irrationality and mocked middle-class complacency and lack of imagination.  One of the best known Dada works is Marcel Duchamp's LH00Q-- the Mona Lisa with a mustache drawn onto her face.  The title is a vulgar pun which sounds roughly like "she has a hot ass" when vocalized in French.] 

 
As we step through the museum, it strikes us that popular tastes change over time and that a number of artists considered geniuses today were soundly boxed about the ears by the critics of yesterday...

Pop Art: Richard Hamilton, Just What Is It That Makes
Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing, 1956
 

Everyone knows the travails of poor Vincent Van Gogh.  Self-destructive and lacking a complete left ear, he is famously said to have sold but one painting in his lifetime-- Red Vineyard at Arles.  But this claim has been disputed by those who say the picture wasn't sold until 1891, the year after Vincent's death as well as researchers who've found hints he was commissioned to do a series of four images representing the Four Seasons...
 

Less known are the miseries of James McNeill Whistler...


Whistler's best known painting is called Whistler's Mother by most people (except for trivia game show hosts and art critics who refer to it as Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1).  It is among the most famous pieces done by American born artists although it was painted in Great Britain.  (Whistler never particularly embraced the notion that he'd come into the world in Lowell, Massachusetts, and frequently asserted St Petersburg, Russia, as the true site of his nativity.)  Arrangement looks to us modern folk to be the ultimate Victorian Era portrait.  Yet the Royal Academy of Art in London almost rejected the painting for its 104th exhibition in 1872, deepening a growing rift between Whistler and the Artistic Establishment...

Op Art: Bridget Riley, Movement In Squares, 1961
 

And Whistler did other things contemporary critics didn't appreciate.  One of them was Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket.  Art historians now cite it as foretelling the coming of the Abstract school of painting because of the way the painting places a greater value on visual sensation than on realistic depiction.  But the experts of Jimmy Whistler's day didn't see it as anything particularly special.  Critic John Ruskin, one of the great arbiters of taste in late 19th century Great Britain, dismissed Nocturne as a pot of paint tossed in the public's face.  Ruskin was promptly sued by Whistler for "libelous" remarks that also mocked Whistler's "Cockney impudence".  Whistler won the lawsuit-- awarded one farthing (one-fourth of one penny) in damages by a jury more charitable than Ruskin...

Proto-Abstraction: James McNeill Whistler,
Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket,
1874
 

James McNeill Whistler wasn't the only artist inclined to thumb his nose at critics... 


Les Fauves, a short-lived but influential group, were vulgarly enamored of wild and bold brush strokes slapped from vivid colors on their palettes-- traits incorporated by Abstract artists.  Wild Beasts they were to Academic Art and that is exactly, dear sir and dear ma'am, what Academic Art called them...


Fauvism had a spiritual father in Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau who taught at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.  A prolific artist (he produced more than 8000 pieces in his lifetime), Moreau drew heavily on Biblical and mythological themes for his work.  The Symbolists were heavily influenced by the dark poetry of Charles Baudelaire (known for his Fleurs du Mal-- Flowers of Evil-- collection and Edgar Allan Poe and they strove to capture the world of imagination and dreams on canvas.  As a mentor, Moreau "did not set us on the right roads, but off the roads" in Henri Matisse's words, and "disturbed our complacency"...
Fauvism: Henri Matisse, Le Bonheur de Vivre, 1905

 

Wild Beasts dovetailed with Cubists to open the door for Abstract Art in the Twentieth Century...
 

"Form disintegrates, object and subject disappear" was art historian Sarah Newmeyer's succinct summation of the child born to this dovetail.  Rudolf Arnheim tried to his hand at defining Abstract Art by saying it uses visual languages of form, color and line to create compositions which may exist with a degree of independence from visual references in the world.  But, for non-artists, this definition of Abstract Art is a "Say Wha?" kind of statement...

Fauvism: Georges Roualt, The Old King,
1916-1936
 

Ordinary folks strolling through museums can "understand" Fauvism to a certain extent:  trees sort of resemble trees, nude nymphs kind of look like nude nymphs, shadows are shadows even if they are bright blue...


Cubism is a tad harder to comprehend since it moves towards reducing the world we see into three solids (cubes, spheres, cones) which Paul Cezanne believed formed the essence of form in the natural world... 


George Braque and Pablo Picasso are usually credited with turning Cubism into a major art movement.  With emphasis on simple and basic shapes, Cubists found inspiration in the "primitive" world of the non-European world, such as in African tribal masks or rough cut New Guinean fetishes.  This muse worked through subconscious channels: Picasso would deny to the day of his death that his brothel scene, Les Demoiselles d' Avignon, had been born as a conscious reworking of African themes.  The painting is considered a major step in the development of Cubism...

Proto-Cubism: Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d' Avignon,
1907
 

When we look at Les Demoiselles d' Avignon we are not on a different planet from the one belonging to the Fauvists, the planet which inspired twenty years of work by Georges Roualt on The Old King.  Perhaps these ladies of negotiable virtue live on a distant and exotic continent, but not in some strange or brave new world...


But the world of the Abstract artist is a different place than the world of the Fauvist... 
Cubism: Georges Braque, Violin and Candlestick, 1910


This world came into being at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Centuries.  Men in the time of Leonardo revived a dormant classical notion of measuring the world in human terms.  Men in the time of Matisse saw Man as a mortal Lord of Creation, capable of reshaping earth with powerful machines and traversing its vast distances in gargantuan steam ships and serpentine railroads.  Yet, despite Darwin's implied non-theistic evolution and Marx's militant atheistic materialism, many thinking men were loath to abandon notions of meaningful creation, seeking wisdom in the teachings of H P Blavatsky and George Gurdjieff and P D Ouspensky...
Abstract: Piet Mondrian, Composition No 10, 1939-1942

 

[Sarah Newmeyer comments in her Enjoying Modern Art that Kandinsky (who trained as a lawyer) had the goal of using painting to express the inner reality of the soul.  His first steps towards realizing this came one day after he noticed the spots on a woman's dress and asked himself if color alone might be used to create forms without reliance on realistic shapes.] 
 

Mystics like Madame Blavatsky fashioned quasi-Eastern philosophies in their attempt to understand the core of things, the essential nature of the world of shapes as informed by the world of spirit.  Artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian read their books and tried to do the same thing with canvas and metal and stone by using only the eternal and timeless elements (circles, triangles, squares) that formed the foundations of an eternal and timeless universe... 

Pop Art: Roy Lichtenstein, Whaam!, 1963
 

Here, Abstract artists sought clues from the Cubists as to how geometric forms could be used to express the innermost meaning of things... 


Such rarified intellectual foundations coat Abstract Art with what some lay persons call auras of incomprehensible pondering...

Abstract: Fernan Leger, The Railroad Crossing, 1919
 

Being intellectuals, critics and art historians have their own search for deeper meanings of Abstract Art-- is it a symbolic expression of man's increasing alienation from mankind and nature in industrialized society, does it utilize Jungian archetypes, can it be seen as a function of the dehumanizing power of money in a bureaucratic society dominated by mass marketing and conspicuous consumption...


My suggestion is that the best way to appreciate Abstract Art if one is not trapped in the snare of Publish or Perish Academia is to simply look at it without trying to find the deep meaning of the piece.  In brief moments of silence, three things speak to one another: a work of art, an artist perhaps long dead or still living, and a viewer.  And there, in that non-judgmental communication, is the real secret to understanding Abstract Art...


Camp Pops Art
 

 

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Note: All photographs for this essay were located through Google Images or Wikipedia, without authoritative source or ownership information except as noted: none

1 comment:

  1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-KvRwbbgbME

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