Nazis

Irony and Sarcasm in Art by Chris Hall

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I recently read a couple of interesting articles in the Remodernist Review and on Salon on the use of irony in the art world, and I felt compelled to share with you some of my thoughts as well.  In the Remodernist Review, Richard Bledsoe quotes a line from Edgar Rice Burroughs' The Land That Time Forgot:  “I don't like irony. . . it indicates a small soul.”  I have to agree with this sentiment.  Irony is born out of pessimism.  It is something I can understand very well.  I have frequent bouts of pessimism in my life, and irony sometimes rears it's ugly head in my art-making.  But I believe it is something we should try to transcend.  We can do better than this.

In Bledsoe's article, he writes, “To embrace irony is to strike a pose of groundless superiority, to think social status is demonstrated by a jaded attitude.”  Bledsoe continues:

Irony is the philosophy of sour grapes.  Those who feel incapable of producing something with skill, meaning and significance like to act like they don’t want those achievements manifested in their works.  But even worse, and more treacherous, to preserve their facade they must suppress and undermine the works of others who are striving towards some higher purpose or accomplishment.  Sophisticated poseurs can tolerate no reminder of their own shortcomings. Irony is a form of passive-aggressive envy. . .  

Those are harsh accusations, but accusations that just might float.  It is true that a lot of bad contemporary art is justified by impenetrable theory and text, theory and text that is ironic and pessimistic in nature.  It just might be that the use of irony might be more than a crutch, but a purposeful obfuscation of the weakness of their argument and art. 

Irony, along with sarcasm, has infected our culture.  Not only is too readily apparent in contemporary art, it has also manifested itself in the way we interact with other people.  Going through the personals on dating websites (yes, ladies, I'm single) I frequently come upon a variation of the addendum “must like sarcasm.”  I see it so often that it has become a turn off.  To me, “must like sarcasm” is code for “I am so smart, so much smarter than you, that I can allow myself to be insulting and smug about it.”  Sarcasm is a form of detached, jaded insincerity.  It bespeaks a lack of curiosity, a closed mind, an unwillingness to learn, and a shallow personality.  Perhaps in small doses, it is OK, we all go there sometimes, but as a personality trait, I'm not interested.  Although contemporary art is filled with irony and sarcasm, I don't blame art for our culture's smug opinion of itself (today's art world is as insular and elitist as ever – not much of an influence on our cultural zeitgeist), instead I think the blame can safely be placed on the pop culture medium of television.  I also think that contemporary art, which draws from pop culture trends as much as it does from pessimistic critical theory, has followed suit.  The critical detachment of watching a train wreck and ironically discussing its aesthetic merits and flaws or political implications is not the environment with which I want to produce art work.  Remember the last two episodes of Seinfeld where the gang are jailed after watching, recording, and laughing as a man is carjacked at gunpoint in front of them?  It is a damning criticism of where I think our culture is now, the whole better you than me attitude.  Everyone laughs, and nobody stops to help.

Don't get me wrong - I'm no saint.  Sometimes I, too, can be jaded, smug, etc., but I always try to treat others with sincerity and respect.  I think my use of sarcasm and irony can be traced to my sometimes excessive sense of pride.  Pride is perhaps the strongest of my faults (that, and Anger – which often stems from my impatience and disappointment at seeing the world fail to live up to my ideals and expectations).  I try to keep my faults in check whenever they appear, and while I am more successful at keeping Pride in check, Anger, being more of an emotion than an attitude, is sometimes harder to control.  Humility is the key . . . recognizing that there have been, are presently, and will be people more talented and intelligent than you is but one step on the path toward achieving the peace that comes with wisdom.  But this is hard in the Ego driven world, where success is often measured proportionately with how much Ego you have, and how much you brag about yourself.  I have no time for Egotism in my life.  There is always so much more to work on, to make better, and to learn.

Obviously written by someone who has a high opinion of themself.

Obviously written by someone who has a high opinion of themself.

One of the reasons Postmodern and contemporary art critics give as to why sincerity and passion is bad for art and the world is addressed in Matt Ashby's and Brendan Carroll's article in Salon.  In it they write:  

Skeptics reject sincerity because they worry blind belief can lead to such evils as the Ku Klux Klan and Nazism. They think strong conviction implies vulnerability to emotional rhetoric and lack of critical awareness. But the goal of great art is the same whether one approaches it seriously or dubiously. To make something new, to transcend, one must have an honest relationship with what is: history, context, form, tradition, oneself.

Today the critical default is skepticism and pessimism.  Skepticism and pessimism in critical theory was partially born out of the use of art and aesthetics to inspire blind devotion in Nazi Germany.  Pessimistic critical theory gained further appeal with the failure of art to spark a world wide revolution in 1968.  But I believe with all my heart that we can not just lay there at the bottom of the hill, licking our wounds, laughing as others also fall down.  If optimism isn't your thing, then call it something else, like Schopenhauer's animalistic “Will” to carry on.  The only thing that matters is that we've got to get up and try again!  It is OK to aspire to great things and to stand up for your ideals.  Somebody's got to be the hero, and if its not going to be you, if you are not going to even try, then I may as well have a crack at it.  I know the odds are stacked against me, and that I may very well fail, but I know that I will at least be the better human being for having been brave enough to try.

In the Salon article, Ashby and Carroll ask some important questions:

So, to be more nuanced about what’s at stake: In the present moment, where does art rise above ironic ridicule and aspire to greatness, in terms of challenging convention and elevating the human spirit? Where does art build on the best of human creation and also open possibilities for the future? What does inspired art-making look like?

One might be tempted to look toward the recent past, towards Modernism for examples of “inspired art,” but we don't have to.  There are plenty of people working in contemporary art, exiles still working on the edges of the officially sanctioned art world institutions, waiting for their time to come.  These artists, whether they are aware of it or not, are part of a growing art movement called Remodernism.  Truly inspired artists, once scattered to the winds in the contemporary art wasteland, are now starting to find each other, banding together for strength in numbers, and they are starting to challenge the status quo and stir things up a bit.  My hope is that the movement will continue to grow and gain momentum.  Richard Bledsoe closes out his article in his blog Remodernist Review with the following:

It’s an exciting time to be an artist, and help the world move past the self-serving decadence the self-proclaimed elites cultivate.  It’s time to call the bluffs, stand up to the bullying, and put the perpetrators to the test.  Can their art survive outside the privileged cloisters they huddle in?

It is hard to know exactly what art and the world will be like in the future.  We can only speculate based on current circumstances and past examples in art history.  In art history we know that Modernism rescued art from the stale clutches of 19th century Academic art, and that there was a spiritual revival in art (Abstract Expressionism) following the comparatively more decadent period of art between the two world wars and the fascist aesthetics of the mid-1930's.  Today it seems that there are a few loud voices of dissent operating on the margins of the art world, while a large group of hard-line Postmodernists remain burrowed in the skin of our art institutions like ticks, sucking in as much blood as they can before they die off.  And they are dying off.  By far the largest group of people in the art world are the ambivalents.  They may go either way.  While some may be flat out opportunists, I feel the vast majority of these people are truly getting tired of all the irony and sarcasm.  They are just looking for something to believe in again.  They want something better.  The Postmodern parasites will, no doubt, promote successors who share a similar philosophical background.  There is not much we can do about that.  What we can do is make our voices loud and our message clear, and promote an attractive alternative agenda to replace what is currently being offered by our art institutions.  Perhaps someday our ranks will grow large enough where we can properly challenge those who now hold power in the art world institutions.  Perhaps someday it will not all be in vain.

Sandro Botticelli by Chris Hall

Sandro Botticelli, Self Portrait, detail from  Adoration of the Magi  (1475).

Sandro Botticelli, Self Portrait, detail from Adoration of the Magi (1475).

Sandro Botticelli was an Italian painter, born in the crucible of art that was Renaissance Florence.  Very little is known of Botticelli's early life.  We know that by 1462 he was apprenticed to Fra Filippo Lippi, from whom he learned intimacy and detail, and we know that he was also influenced by the monumentality of Masaccio's painting.  Botticelli would use both of these influences to great effect later in life.  It is possible that when he was apprenticed in Filippo Lippi's workshop, he may have traveled to Esztergom, Hungary to work on a fresco commission.  By 1470, however, Botticelli had opened his own studio.  In 1475, Botticelli painted what is thought by some to be his first masterpiece, the Adoration of the Magi for the church Santa Maria Novella.  The painting contains the portraits of Cosimo de Medici, his sons Piero and Giovanni, and his grandsons, Lorenzo and Giuliano.  It also contains what may be Botticelli's self-portrait, as the blond figure in the yellow robe on the far right.  The work was so successful that he was commissioned to repaint it seven more times.

In 1481, Pope Sixtus IV invited Botticelli, and a few other Florentine artists, to paint frescoes in the Sistine Chapel in Rome.  Botticelli's contributions included The Temptations of Christ, The Punishment of the Rebels, and The Trials of Moses.  Having completed the work in 1482, Botticelli returned to Florence, where he became enamored with Dante's Divine Comedy.  He wrote a commentary for portions of the work, painted a Portrait of Dante, his Map of Hell, and made 92 illustrations for the Inferno, which he then had printed (printing was a then a new art-form).  Botticelli's two most famous works, Primavera, and The Birth of Venus  were commissioned works by Florentine ruler Lorenzo de' Medici.  Both works reflect Botticelli's and the Medici's interest in mythological and Neoplatonic subject matter.  Known for their linear grace, both iconic paintings are considered by many to be among the most beautiful works of art in all of art history.

In late life, Botticelli became one of the followers of the puritanical, fire and brimstone Dominican zealot, Girolamo Savonarola, who preached in Florence from 1490 until his execution in 1498.  Savonarola, at first, was extremely popular with the Florentines, who expelled the Medici and put Savonarola into power as head of the republic in 1494.  Savonarola quickly established a strict theocracy in an attempt to rid the city of vice.  Bands of morality police patrolled the streets, curbing immodest dress and behavior.  Most significant, however, was Savonarola's notorious “Bonfire of the Vanities,” where citizens were pressured into burning condemned items which might tempt a person to sin.  Among the condemned items were mirrors, cosmetics, fine dresses, playing cards, and musical instruments.  Secular books and artworks were also targeted.  Among the participants in the “Bonfire of the Vanities” was Sandro Botticelli, who reportedly burned his own pagan themed works.  Giorgio Vasari writes that Savonarola's influence on Botticelli was so great, “that he was thereby induced to desert his painting, and, having no income to live on, fell into very great distress.  For this reason, persisting in his attachment to that party, and becoming a Piagnone he abandoned his work."  Eventually the Florentines grew tired of Savonarola's repressive government and his claims of prophecy and miracle making (he claimed to have saved Florence from God's wrath from another flood and claimed to be able to walk through fire).  Popular legend has it that when Savonarola attempted to close down the taverns, the Florentines rebelled, and Savonarola was executed, simultaneously hanged and burned in a bonfire in the Piazza della Signoria.  

Botticelli produced little in his later years, and he quickly grew into obscurity.  He lived long enough to see his work eclipsed by another Florentine, young Michelangelo Buonarroti.  Botticelli was all but forgotten after his death, a footnote in art history, until he was later rediscovered in the late 19th century.  It is hard for me to accept that an artist can go against their very nature, and stop creating art.  When ordered to stop painting by the Nazis, Emil Nolde found a way to still paint.  How willing a participant Botticelli was in Savonarola's government, we can not ever know.  Perhaps there were other reasons why Botticelli stopped painting.  It is also hard for me to accept that great art, such as The Birth of Venus, can be forgotten, lost to time.  Such works seem timeless today.  When I was in the Uffizi in Florence, I spent what felt like an eternity in front of the painting.  Realizing that Botticelli's works were once unappreciated and forgotten is a reminder that every culture, every age, has its own spirit and aesthetic tastes.  What may be great today, could be considered irrelevant and meaningless tomorrow – and vice versa.  

Some Notes on the History of Paint by Chris Hall

Paint is composed of two elements, a pigment and a binder.  The pigment, a ground up granular like powder, gives the paint its color, while the binder acts as a glue to bind the pigment to a surface, whether that be a cave wall, a canvas, or a piece of paper.  

In 2011, the earliest example of paint was found in South Africa.  It dates back 100,000 years.  The first paints were composed of pigments derived from the earth, such as clays and sand, and animal derivatives, such as charred animal bones.  The first artists used spit and animal fat as a binder.  Later, as our ancestors developed a taste for honey, eggs, and milk, egg white, egg yolk, bee’s wax, and milk was used as a binder.  

In search of a more permanent and harder solution, binders derived from plants developed, such as linseed oil (used in oil painting) and gum Arabic (used in watercolor).  When linseed oil became a scarce commodity during the Second World War, synthetic binders made from artificial resins emerged and Acrylic paint was born.

The history of pigment development is one of a search for new colors, permanence (fade resistance), affordability, and less toxicity.  In this regard, the general trend has been to move away from organic and earth derived pigments, and toward synthetic pigments.  

Some interesting examples of obsolete pigments include:

Indian Yellow

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Indian Yellow was made from the urine collected from cows that were force feed a diet of mango leaves.  The urine was collected and dried, producing small foul-smelling balls of raw pigment called “purree.”  Cows do not digest mango leaves very efficiently as the leaves contain a toxin similar to poison ivy.  Consequently, the cows were often thin and malnourished.  Apparently, even though the cow was/is considered sacred by many in India, they did not think anything about profiting from the starvation of cows.  The practice of producing Indian Yellow was declared inhumane and outlawed in 1908.

Mummy Brown

The use of Mummy Brown as a pigment dates from the 16th century to the early 20th century.  Like the name implies, it was derived from the ground-up remains of Egyptian mummies.  The pigment, falling between burnt umber and raw umber in color, was good for producing transparent effects in glazing, shadows, and flesh tones, and was a favorite color in the palette of the Pre-Raphaelite painters.  The pigment quickly lost its popularity once the secret to its composition became generally known to artists.  The Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones was reported to have ceremonially buried his tube of Mummy Brown in his garden when he discovered its true origins.  By this time, however, the supply of available mummies had become exhausted, and with the birth of modern Egyptology, new mummies were no longer forthcoming.  Sometimes this pigment was alternatively named Caput Mortuum (latin for “Dead Head” or “Worthless Remains”).  Caput Mortuum is also an Alchemical term for the useless residue left over from processes such as Sublimation and is symbolic of decay and decline.  Alchemists represented Caput Mortuum in their art and texts by using a stylized Death's Head  symbol.


Ultramarine Blue

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The name Ultramarine is from Latin meaning “beyond the sea,” referring to the distance one had to travel in order to obtain it.  Ultramarine Blue is an expensive pigment sourced from Lapis Lazuli, a semi-precious stone mined in Afghanistan.  Lapis Lazuli was also extremely difficult to grind-down, filter, and refine into a high quality pigment.  In Renaissance times, wealthy patrons would commission works using Ultramarine Blue as a status symbol (stipulating its use in their contracts), as the pigment was worth its weight in gold.  Its brilliance was also desired by painters.  The 15th century artist Cennino Cennini wrote in his handbook for painters: "Ultramarine blue is a color illustrious, beautiful, the most perfect, beyond all other colors; one could not say anything about it, or do anything with it, that its quality would not still surpass."  Synthesized in 1826, Ultramarine went from being one of the most expensive pigments produce to now being one of the most cheapest.  Real Ultramarine is still manufactured (it is both non-toxic and permanent), but remains extremely cost prohibitive.  During the darkest days in the recent wars in Afghanistan, a tiny tube of paint could cost $500.

Tyrian Purple  

Tyrian Purple is technically a dye (smaller colored particles diluted in liquid rather than suspended) and not a pigment, but it's history is also worth discussing.  Tyrian Purple (also known as Imperial Purple) had a reddish purple tint and was extremely light-fast (rare among the early colors).  It was also expensive to produce, as it was derived from the collected mucus of the Muricidae family of predatory sea snails.  Discovered by the Phoenicians as early as 1570 BCE, the pigment was used almost exclusively by royalty because of its cost, which was reported to be worth its weight in silver.  In fact, in some places, sumptuary laws were put into place restricting its use those of “noble birth.”  In Byzantium, where such sumptuary laws were practiced, a child born of a reigning Emperor was said to be “born into the purple.”  Byzantine production of Tyrian Purple came to abrupt stop after the fall of Constantinople in 1204, during the Fourth Crusade.  Soon the color fell out of favor (replaced by Vermillion and Crimson) as no one in the West could gather the financial resources to restart production.  Incidently, Tyrian Purple was also produced in Pre-Columbian Mexico, from the same sea snails, where it was valued more than gold and also used denote those of “noble birth.”  For all its Royal implications, cloth dyed in Tyrian Purple tended to retain its fishy odor.  So pervasive was this stench that the Talmud actually granted women the right to divorce their husband if they became a dyer after marrying.

Sepia

The word Sepia comes from the Greek, meaning “cuttlefish,” and that is exactly from where the red-brown pigment comes from, more specifically, the cuttlefish ink sac.  Sepia ink was first commonly used in the Greco-Roman world, as a writing ink.  Artists used it as a drawing medium starting in the Renaissance, with the practice continuing up through the 19th century.  In the late 18th century, Jacob Seydelmann found a way to concentrate Sepia so that it could be used as a watercolor and oil paint.  Because Sepia is not very light-fast, it is difficult today to find real Sepia pigment.  Fortunately, however, Sepia has now been successfully synthesized and a hue is available.

Carmine

A New World pigment derived from crushed shells of the female Cochineal insect.  Replaced Crimson in Europe, which was derived from the Kermes insect.  Although comparable in color quality and intensity, it required 12 times as much Kermes insects to produce the same amount of color from the Cochineal insect.  Consequently, Carmine pigment became one of the first export goods from the New World after Hernando Cortez's conquest of Mexico, the second most valuable, after silver.  Such was its value as a raw product, that its price was regularly quoted in the London and Amsterdam Commodities Exchanges.  The Mexican monopoly on Carmine came to an end during the Mexican War of Independence (1810- 1821), with production centers starting in Guatemala, the Canary Islands, North Africa, and Spain, though as an artist pigment, Carmine was soon replaced by its synthesized version, Alizarin Crimson.  Carmine survives today as a pigment used to color food products and cosmetics.

Dragon's Blood

From the time of the Romans up through the Medieval times, Dragon's Blood pigment was literally thought to have derived from the congealed blood of Dragons and Elephants, mixed together as they fought in mortal combat.  The truth to its production was kept secret for over a thousand years.  Dragon's Blood pigment was produced from the sapped gum of a South East Asian tree and the story was most likely invented as a marketing device.  Dragon's Blood was used in the famous Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii.  The pigment is known to be extremely fugitive (it fades rapidly).  Inhis handbook for painters, the 15th century artist Cennino Cennini writes concerning Dragon's Blood, “leave it alone and do not have much respect for it..."


Indigo

Indigo is a dye extracted from plants of the genus Indigofera, native to the tropic regions of the world.  Indigo is dark blue in color.  Indigo dye is one of the world's oldest and best known colors, being produced in the ancient times in India, China, Japan, and South East Asia, as well as in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Britain, Mesoamerica, Peru, Iran, and Africa.  Because blue pigment is rare in nature and is difficult to produce, trade in Indigo dye became very lucrative.  In some circles, Indigo dye was referred to as “Blue Gold.”  Indigo was a major export crop supported by plantation slavery in colonial South Carolina in the 18th century, second only to rice production (cotton was not profitable until after the invention of the Cotton Gin in 1793).  Later, peasants in Bengal revolted against unfair treatment by the East India Company traders/planters in what became known as the Indigo Revolt in 1859, during the British Raj  government of India.  

Maya Blue

The secret to Maya Blue production has long been lost to history, but scientists in recent years are finally putting an end to the mystery.  Unlike Indigo, Maya Blue is extremely permanent and light-fast.  Scientists have now discovered that Maya Blue is a combination of Indigo dyes and palygorskite, a clay found in the state of Georgia, in the Southeastern United States.  Besides being used in their art (murals, sculpture, textiles, and illuminated codices) Mayan Blue also held a particular religious significance in Mesoamerican culture, as Human sacrificial victims were frequently daubed with the blue pigmentation.  

Prussian Blue

In 1704, Johann Conrad Dippel discovered the world's first modern synthetic pigment, by accident.  He was trying to produce a red pigment, but instead invented Prussian Blue (also known as Berlin Blue), known for its deep, blue-black color.  Dippel was a controversial figure, a mad scientist type who dabbled in alchemy and illegal anatomy studies in his laboratory in Castle Frankenstein.  In the course of one of his experiments, Dippel is said to have accidentally blown up one of the castle's towers.  It is also said that he tried to re-animate the dead, worked at transferring the soul of one cadaver to another, and boiled and distilled human body parts while seeking to create the Elixir of Life.  It should come as no surprise that Dippel was the inspiration behind Mary Shelley’s character Dr. Victor Frankenstein in her novel Frankenstein.  Prussian Blue is highly toxic, being derived from Cyanide.  Despite being toxic, Prussian Blue pigment was also used as an orally administered medicine, an antidote to heavy metal poisoning.  Dippel himself was reported to have regularly taken doses of the pigment, which, ironically, may have slowly poisoned him.  The skin of his body was said to have been the color of Prussian Blue when he died.  Prussian Blue would go on to have an even more grisly history.  The poisonous gas Zyklon B, used by the Nazis during the Holocaust, was also derived from Cyanide.  Consequently, the walls of the Gas Chambers are stained Prussian Blue.  It is still possible to obtain Prussian Blue today, but for the most part, the color has been replaced on artist's palettes by the less toxic Phthalo Blue.

In case you thought the history of Prussian Blue pigment is all grissly, allow me a chance to redeem it.  A good many beautiful works of art were created with Prussian Blue pigment, including Hokusai's The Great Wave (1832) and Van Gogh's The Starry Night (1889).  There is a potentially interesting connection between the two works.  Prussian Blue did not became popular in the European pallet until sometime in the mid to late 1800's.  Meanwhile, when the color was first imported in 1829 to Japan, works created with Prussian Blue were in great demand.  When Japanese prints made with Prussian Blue pigment found their way back to Europe, they named the exotic color “Hiroshige Blue,” after the Japanese printmaker who used the color extensively.  It seems the people in the West had forgotten that the source of the pigment was actually Germany!  Van Gogh, who collected Japanese prints and who was inspired by their beauty, color, and other formal qualities, perhaps began using Prussian Blue as a result.  

Flake White

Developed in Ancient Greek times, Flake White pigment is derived from White Lead Carbonate.  For centuries, Flake White was considered the perfect pigment, being permanent, fast to  dry, and producing flexible oil films.  There was only one problem:  Flake White is extremely poisonous.  It is thought that it may have contributed to bad physical and mental health, and even death of many artists over the years, including Michelangelo Buonarroti, Michelangelo Caravaggio, Francisco Goya, Candido Portinari, and possibly Vincent Van Gogh.  Nevertheless, Flake White was still used by many artists up until after World War II, when it started to lose ground to Titanium White.  By the 1990's only a few manufacturers were offering the color, and it is still possible to buy the pigment today.

Emerald Green

Green pigment (along with blue) has always been the rarest and hardest to produce of the pigment colors, a bit ironic when you consider we live on planet dominated by the colors green and blue.  One of the most beautiful green pigments to have ever been produced is Emerald Green (also known as Scheele's Green), but it is also the most poisonous. It is so poisonous it was sold under the trade name Paris Green as an insecticide and was used to kill the rats in the Parisian sewer system.  Emerald Green was also popular as a wallpaper pigment and would degrade, with moisture and molds, to arsine, a poisonous gas related to arsenic.  The pigment was also used in wax candles, textiles, and children's toys.  Aside from being toxic and exuding toxic gas, Emerald Green was also highly carcinogenic.  It is impossible to figure how many people may have died as a result of the use of the Emerald Green pigment, but we know it may have contributed to the death of Napoleon, who surrounded himself with the color (his favorite) in the damp climate of his exile home on St. Helena.  Analysis of hair samples taken after his death reveal there was a significant amount of arsenic in his body.  Emerald Green was an extremely fugitive color, as it could both fade in sunlight and darken as it tended to chemically react with other colors.  Today there is a safer, synthetic version of the color available.

Woad

The use of Woad as a dye dates back to the ancient Egyptians, who used it to color the cloth wrappings of mummies.  It is blue in color dye derived from a flowering plant of the same name.  Woad is most popularly known, thanks to the movie Braveheart, as the dark blue face paint used by the Scots when preparing for battle.  The tradition of using Woad as a body paint dates back to ancient Britain, to the northern Picts (from the Latin Picti, meaning “Painted Ones”), who were recorded by Julius Caesar as having extensively tattooed bodies and covered in designs applied with blue Woad paint.  Woad was in direct competition with Indigo and Logwood, a dye derived from a South American tree, exported by Spain to Europe.  In England, laws were passed preventing the importation of both Indigo and Logwood in order to protect the local Woad industry, and sea battles were fought with Spain over the trade.  As it became clear that Indigo and Logwood were superior pigments, producing stronger dyes with more permanence, the ban was lifted in 1661.  The Woad industry slowly died out, with the last large scale commercial harvest happening in 1932.

Marc Chagall by Chris Hall

Marc and Bella Chagall.

Marc and Bella Chagall.

Marc Chagall (1887 - 1985) was a Russian-French artist and a pioneer of modernism.  Chagall was born near Vitebsk, Russian Empire (present day Belarus) in a poor Hasidic Jewish family.  Memories of his life growing up in Vitbsk would color much of future art.  Between 1906 and 1910, Chagall studied art in St. Petersburg, the political and cultural capital of the Russian Empire.  He frequently visited his home, Vitebsk, where he meet his first wife, Bella Rosenfeld.  In My Life, Chagall described his first meeting her: "Her silence is mine, her eyes mine. It is as if she knows everything about my childhood, my present, my future, as if she can see right through me."  Completing his studies, in 1910, the ambitious Chagall moved on to Paris.  

In Paris he created his own style of modern art based on his childhood experience of Eastern European Jewish folk culture.  The Paris avant-garde was dominated by cubism at the time, and many viewed Chagall's colorful, dreamlike paintings as a curiosity.  In 1914, a Berlin art dealer, however, found promise in Chagall's paintings, and invited him back to Berlin to exhibit there.  Chagall accepted the invitation, thinking he would pass through Berlin on his way Vitebsk, where he intended to marry Bella.  His plan was to stay just long enough for the exhibition and the wedding, and then return to Paris, but World War I intervened, and the Russian borders closed.  Chagall spent the war years in Belarus and in 1915 married his beloved Bella.  

When the Russian Revolution started in 1917, Chagall found himself in a dangerous situation, but also one with opportunity. As an artist, Chagall was respected in Russia, and he accepted a job to be Commissar of Arts for Vitebsk.  This would result in his founding the Vitebsk Arts College.  Chagall tried to create an atmosphere of diversity at his school, with artists working in a variety of different styles.  This fell apart, however, when several key faculty members began pushing Suprematist art, a minimalist aesthetic focusing on squares and circles, disapproving Chagall's “bourgeois individualism.”  Chagall resigned his post and moved to Moscow to work as a stage designer.  Moscow was not a good place to be during this time, as famine hit the city hard after the war.  When the Russian borders finally opened back up, Chagall, with Bella by his side, was determined to move back to Paris. 

Chagall moved back to the Montparnasse district of Paris in 1923.  On his way back to France he stopped in Berlin to recover the many pictures he had left there on exhibit ten years earlier, before the war began, but was unable to find or recover any of them. With all of his earliest work now gone, Chagall tried to recreate new ones from his memories of the past.  Paris between the wars was modernism's “golden age,” with the Montparnasse district being ground zero for the world's intellectual elite.  In this Parisian crucible, Chagall synthesized the art forms of Cubism, Symbolism, and Fauvism to create his own unique style.  He had some success abroad, with his first show in the United States, featuring about 100 works, in 1926.  He finally began to receive some attention in France, when in 1927 art critic Maurice Raynal included him in his book, Modern French Painters.

In 1933, Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany.  Anti-Semitic laws were being passed and the first concentration camp at Dachau had been established.  Almost immediately, the Nazis began to a campaign against Modern Art.  Expressionist, cubist, abstract, and Surrealist, along with anything intellectual, Jewish, foreign, socialist-inspired, or just plain difficult to understand was targeted for removal, to be replaced by more accessible, realist work, especially heavy with German and patriotic themes.  Chagall was declared an Entartete Kunst, a “Degenerate Artist,” and his work was included in the famous Entartete Kunst exhibition in Munich, 1937.

When Germany invaded France, the Chagalls naively moved to the unoccupied south, in Vichy France.  They were unaware that the Vichy government was collaborating with the Germans to send French Jews to German concentration camps.  Chagall woke up to reality in October of 1940, when the Vichy government, under pressure from the Nazis, began to approve anti-Semetic laws, and French Jews were removed from public and academic positions.  By then, however, they were trapped.  America could be their only refuge, but they could not afford the ticket to New York, let alone the large bond that each immigrant had to pay upon entry to ensure that they would not be burden on the state.

Some circles in America, however, were sympathetic to the situation in France.  France had capitulated quickly, faster than Poland only the year before.  Paris was thought to be the center of civilization, and many were astonished to see it fall into Hitler's hands.  Chagall was not the only Russian or Jewish artist trapped in France; Chaim Soutine, Max Ernst, and Max Beckmann all sought to escape.  With help from Alfred Barr of the New York Museum of Modern Art, Chagall was added to a list of prominent artists whose lives were at risk and who the United States should try to extricate.  A rescue operation to smuggle artists and intellectuals out of Europe to the US by providing them with forged visas was started.  Chagall was one of over 2,000 people rescued by this operation and together with his family, he left France in May of 1941, when it was almost too late.

Chagall was awarded the Carnegie Prize in the United States in 1939, but he had no idea what kind of reception he would have stepping foot in America for the first time.  He found out that he was somewhat famous in the art world, and that his work was more appreciated in the United States than in France.  Chagall felt uncomfortable in his new role as artist-celebrity, in a foreign country where he could not even speak the language.  He felt lost at first, exiled in a strange place and time.  He spent a lot of time in Jewish communities, especially the Lower East Side, where he found familiar food and was able to read the newspapers printed in Yiddish.  Soon, however, he found that New York was full of artists, writers, and composers who, like himself, had fled from Europe during the Nazi invasions.  For the first time in his life, Chagall began to express interest in current events, and started painting the Crucifixion and scenes of war.  When he learned that the Germans had destroyed Vitebsk, the town where he was raised, he became greatly distressed.  He had also learned about the Nazi concentration camps.  During a speech in February 1944, he summed up his feelings:

Meanwhile, the enemy jokes, saying that we are a "stupid nation." He thought that when he started slaughtering the Jews, we would all in our grief suddenly raise the greatest prophetic scream, and would be joined by the Christian humanists. But, after two thousand years of "Christianity" in the world—say whatever you like—but, with few exceptions, their hearts are silent... I see the artists in Christian nations sit still—who has heard them speak up? They are not worried about themselves, and our Jewish life doesn't concern them.

On September 2nd, 1944, Chagall lost his beloved wife, Bella, due to a virus infection, which was not treated due to the wartime shortages of medicine.  Chagall's heart was broken, and he stopped painting for many months, and when he did resume painting, his first pictures were all concerned with preserving Bella's memory.  Chagall tried to fight bitter feelings.  He considered the possibility that their exile from Europe may have sapped her will to live, and that her death was just one of the millions of Jewish deaths that Germany was responsible for.  A few months after the Allies succeeded in liberating Paris from the Nazi occupation, Chagall wrote a letter “To the Paris Artists,” which was published in a Paris weekly paper.  In it he writes:

In recent years I have felt unhappy that I couldn't be with you, my friends. My enemy forced me to take the road of exile. On that tragic road, I lost my wife, the companion of my life, the woman who was my inspiration. I want to say to my friends in France that she joins me in this greeting, she who loved France and French art so faithfully. Her last joy was the liberation of Paris... Now, when Paris is liberated, when the art of France is resurrected, the whole world too will, once and for all, be free of the satanic enemies who wanted to annihilate not just the body but also the soul—the soul, without which there is no life, no artistic creativity.

By 1946, Chagall's art was becoming more widely recognized.  The Museum of Modern Art gave Chagall a retrospective, will work culled from his 40 year career as an artist.  America had welcomed Chagall with open arms, but France was his real home, and he began making plans to return to Paris at the first practical opportunity.  The Europe he returned to was a very different place from what he had left behind.  Paris was no longer the center of the art world; thanks in part to the influx of European immigrants during the war, New York was now the art capital.  But perhaps the most disturbing to Chagall was the fate of Vitebsk, his hometown in Belarus.  Vitebsk always had a sizable Jewish population.  According to the Russian census of 1897, out of the total 65,900 population, Jews accounted for 34,400, roughly 52%.  By the Second World War, Vitebsk's population had swelled to 240,000.  When the Nazis occupied the city in July 1941, they quickly established a Jewish ghetto, and from the 8th of October to the 11th, they massacred all of Vitbsk's Jewish inhabitants.  Later, much of  the city was obliterated in the ensuing battles between the Germans and the Red Army soldiers.  Of Vitebsk's 240,000 pre-war population, only 118 survived.  All Chagall had left of his past were his memories and his paintings. 

Chagall chose to retreat from Parisian public life and settled in the Cote d' Azur, south of France.  Matisse and Picasso also lived nearby.  Although they were close in proximity to each other, and they sometimes collaborated, their work was different enough that they viewed each other as rivals.  They never became long-term friends.  Picasso, however, did respect Chagall's work.  Sometime in the 1950's, he said, “When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color really is.”

Chagall's post-war years were fruitful.  Through his daughter, Ida, he met Valentina (Vava) Brodsky, a woman from a similar Russian Jewish background.  She became his secretary, but after a few months agreed to stay only if Chagall would marry her.  The marriage took place in July of 1952.  Chagall's art practice also expanded to include sculpture and ceramics, as well as many large scale, public commissions for murals, stained glass windows, mosaics, and tapestries.

In 1963, Chagall was commissioned to paint the new ceiling for the Paris Opera, a majestic 19th century building and national monument.  Andre Malraux, France's Minister of Culture, wanted something unique and decided Chagall would be the ideal artist.  This choice would become a public controversy, as many disliked the idea of having the ceiling of the historic building painted by a modern artist, while the xenophobes objected to having a Russian Jew decorate a French national monument.  Magazines published condescending articles about Chagall.  Chagall commented to one writer that:

They really had it in for me... It is amazing the way the French resent foreigners. You live here most of your life. You become a naturalized French citizen... work for nothing decorating their cathedrals, and still they despise you. You are not one of them.

Despite the scathing criticism, the 77 year old Chagall continued to work on the project, which took him a year to complete.  The final canvas was nearly 2,400 square feet and required 440 pounds of paint.  The work paid tribute to the composers Mozart, Wagner, Mussorgsky, Berlioz, and Ravel.  Chagall was pleased with the work, and when it was unveiled in 1964, he felt vindicated when the press declared the new work to a great contribution to French culture.  Chagall had finally won over France.

Chagall would continue to paint until his death in 1985, age 97.  He was the last survivor of the first generation of European avante-garde artists, outliving Picasso, Matisse, and Miro.  The subjects that interested him most continued to be his memories of Vitebsk, musicians, lovers, the circus, Biblical subjects, and Jewish themes, always a colorful celebration of life and a defiant stance against the tragedies of the 20th century.  Chagall biographer Jackie Wullschlager writes that Chagall was:

a pioneer of modern art and one of its greatest figurative painters... On his canvases we read the triumph of modernism, the breakthrough in art to an expression of inner life that ... is one of the last century's signal legacies. At the same time Chagall was personally swept up in the horrors of European history between 1914 and 1945: world wars, revolution, ethnic persecution, the murder and exile of millions. In an age when many major artists fled reality for abstraction, he distilled his experiences of suffering and tragedy into images at once immediate, simple, and symbolic to which everyone could respond.

In his own way, then, it could be argued that Chagall was just as effective at combating darkness as some of the more politically motivated artists of his time.

Marc Chagall's The Falling Angel (1923 - 1947) by Chris Hall

Marc Chagall returned to Europe in 1946, arriving in Paris.  He and his beloved wife, Bella, fled from the Nazis in 1940 and found themselves in exile in New York City.  Bella died while in the United States, in 1944.  Now, alone in Paris, and with the burden of recent history on his mind, he felt he could at last finish his masterwork, The Falling Angel, which he had been working on for nearly 25 years.  Compared with most of Chagall's oeuvre, which tends toward the romantic and fantastical, The Falling Angel is a relatively dark piece.  Chagall's biographer would describe the painting as an “allegory of an age of terror.”

Chagall began working on the painting shortly after he left Moscow for the Montparnasse district of Paris, in 1923.  It combines Biblical and Torah lore with images taken from modern life and Chagall's own personal symbolism.  The Falling Angel would summarize all of Chagall's experiences he had lived through up to that point in his life.  Chagall had managed to get through the hardships of the Russian Revolution without too much trouble.  In a 1934 photograph of the unfinished work, the tone of the painting is much lighter.  There is a nice picket fence separating the viewer from the scene, and the falling angel resembles a youthful acrobat in a circus performance.  But the rise of the Nazis, the Second World War, the Holocaust, and his wife's death while in exile in the United States, had affected him deeply.  

As war seemed immanent, the work began to take on a foreboding and ominous tone.  The boyish acrobat became a flaming, falling angel, the figure of a man protecting the Torah and man with a cane losing his balance was added.  The grandfather clock, floating as if in the middle of a tornado, suggests that these are troubling times.  The painting depicts a dark world, overturned and shattered, it's space is a topsy-turvy and uncertain place.  Our vantage point—hovering over the village at the picture's center—suggests that we too are falling.  But all is not lost; Chagall does provide refuge from the storm.  A candle still burns bright in the gloom, a yellow cow plays the violin, the Madonna with Child rises from the flames, and Christ's halo shines like a lighthouse beacon into the night.  There is hope for the future.

Chagall, a Jew, believed the Crucifixion was the only image powerful enough to properly express the persecution, suffering, and attempted annihilation of his people.  Sometimes his crucified Christ is Jewish, with tallit and phylacteries, sometimes his Christ is the Christian Jesus, with a halo, and sometimes his crucified figure is meant to represent a secular, every man.  Sometimes in Chagall's Golgotha, he replaces the Roman soldiers with Nazis, and animals, rabbis and Russian peasants often stand in for grieving angels.

After The Falling Angel was exhibited, Chagall felt a change come over him.  Chagall had spent nearly 25 years, a generation, working on the painting, dragging it's 5' x 6' frame with him from city to city, and half way across the world and back.  He had socialized with other avant-garde artists and forward-thinking people in both Paris and New York.  Now he wished to retreat from public life.  In 1950 he moved to Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, a quiet town on the Mediterranean coast of France.  He still had many years of painting ahead of him, but now he would do it in peace.

John Heartfield Versus Hitler by Chris Hall

John Heartfield's  Adolf Hitler the Superman Swallows Gold and Shits Tin , 1932.

John Heartfield's Adolf Hitler the Superman Swallows Gold and Shits Tin, 1932.

Born Helmut Herzfeld on 19 June, 1891, he anglicized his name to John Heartfield to protest the growing anti-British sentiment and rampant German nationalism during the First World War.  Heartfield was a pioneer in the use of art as a political weapon in the 1920's and 1930's particularly against the rise of Hitler and the Nazis.  

Heartfield was a photomontage artist.  Heartfield would create his photomontages by cutting and pasting parts from several photographs (either ones he took himself, commissioned, or found), and then re-photographed the result to produce a single seamless image.  

Heartfield was declared unfit for duty during the First World War by feigning mental illness.  In 1917 he founded Berlin Club Dada, which quickly became the most politically engaged Dada chapter in the movement.  In 1918 Heartfield joined the German Communist Party.  During the 1920's , Heartfield came to conclusion that the only art worth producing was to be of a political nature, and he destroyed all of his earlier work.  

Together with fellow artist George Grosz, Heartfield founded the satirical magazine Die Pleite (The Bankrupt).  Heartfield also produced images for the daily paper Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag), and the weekly paper Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung (AIZ, Worker's Illustrated Newspaper).  AIZ was particularly supportive of Heartfield's work, publishing some 230 of his images, with more than half of them appearing on the front or back cover.  

Heartfield's work was also reproduced on many dust jackets for books, including Upton Sinclair's The Millennium, and on the many political posters that plastered the streets of Berlin at the time.  Heartfield also designed and built theatrical sets for Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht.

John Heartfield lived in Berlin until April 1933, when the Nazis took power.  On Good Friday, the SS broke into his apartment, and Heartfield escaped by jumping from his balcony.  He fled Germany by walking over the Sudeten Mountains into Czechoslovakia, where he continued making work denouncing the Nazis.  In 1938, he was forced to flee the Nazis again, during the occupation of Czechoslovakia, this time taking refuge in London, England.  

Following the war, Heartfield settled in East Berlin, East Germany.  He was looking for his Communist paradise, but did not find it.  Instead, the Stasi (East German Secret Police) treated Heartfield with suspicion, due to his lengthy stay in London and the fact that his dentist was being investigated for “collaboration.” Heartfield could not find work as an artist, was denied admission into the Academy of Arts, and was denied health benefits.  Eventually, with the assistance of Bertolt Brecht and Stefan Heym, he was finally accepted into the East German art community.  Heartfield produced some art warning of the threat of nuclear war, but he was never as prolific as he was during the 1920's and 1930's.  

Some Notes on Dada and Anti-Art

Dada and anti-art are often thought to be the same thing, and while they are thickly entwined, they are really two different things.  Dada was an art movement in the early 20th century, anti-art is an art process and product used and found in many different art movements, up to our present day post-modern art production.

Dada was born with the outbreak of the First World War.  For many of the artists, particularly in Berlin, Dada was a protest against the war, and against the bourgeois, nationalist, and colonialist interests responsible for it.  Dada was viewed as a revolt against cultural and intellectual conformity in art and society at large.  `

While some artists interpreted Dada as a celebration of meaninglessness and nihilism (Duchamp and his anti-art), many, like John Heartfield, used Dada to promote political change.  Dada does not mean an abandoning of all culture and aesthetics, only traditional culture and aesthetics.  If traditional art and culture was meant to appeal to our sensibilities, Dada was intended to offend.  But offensive art can be a useful tool to reshape our cultural landscape.  Anti-art, however, rejects even usefulness.

Anti-art rejects everything and abandons all aesthetic considerations.  Anti-art practitioners believe that bourgeois and capitalist “reason' and “logic” is the root cause of society's ills, and so they champion nihilist attitudes, embrace chaos, chance, and irrationality, destroying all culture and civilization in the process.  Dada nihilist artist Tristan Tzara once said, “I am against systems; the most acceptable system is on principle to have none.”  

Nihilism, at best, is a sign of resignation, apathy, or giving up.  At worst it is a barbarian's approach, wantonly destroying all aesthetic and cultural view points in its path.  I believe a lot things need to be dismantled and destroyed, but not everything.  Nihilists are usually poor students of history.  I believe there is much to be mined from the past, things that can guide us in terms of what we can reuse and reinterpret, but also things that we can avoid.  Nihilists usually have tunnel vision as well, and fail to see that some things in our present culture are also worth saving.  Instead of being selective and focusing on the small problems, individually, they would rather burn down the whole house and start from the beginning. 

Dada has always been a love/hate affair for me, as so many of its practitioners were nihilist anti-artists, like Duchamp.  I can not support the nihilist position nor can I support the production of anti-art.  I do not believe that everything is meaningless.  I have not lost my ideals and believe with hard work and cooperation, there is a small chance that we might just be able to make the world a better place.

John Heartfield was a Dada artist, but not an anti-artist.  He believed in something and had ideals, something he thought so highly of that he risked his life defying Hitler for it.  Marcel Duchamp the anti-artist did not.  John Heartfield, while he may have abandoned traditional aesthetics, he did not abandon aesthetics completely.  This is why Heartfield's art could so effectively carry his strong anti-Nazi message, why his work was deemed worth saving and not thrown away like a makeshift protest sign constructed out of poster-board and magic-marker, and why we are able to appreciate his work in museums today.

Otto Dix, George Grosz, and Weimar Berlin by Chris Hall

Otto Dix and George Grosz were both artists in Post World War I Weimar Berlin and participated in the New Objectivity art movement.  Both artists served in the German Army and their experiences during the war colored their art work.  Dix and Grosz were also ruthless, sharp observers of Weirmar Berlin decadence after the wartime defeat and the financial collapse.  The Weimar Republic encompassed the years between 1918 and 1933, when Hitler came to power.  The Weimar Republic was a Renaissance in intellectual production.  Germany was forefront in advancements in science, technology, literature, philosophy, and art.  Nine Germans won Nobel Prizes during the Weimar Republic, including Albert Einstein, for Physics in 1921.  Despite the progressiveness of the era, the Weimar Republic was far from stable.

 It was a strange and chaotic time.  Politics were passionate.  Roving gangs of Communists, Anarchists, Pro-Republics, and right-wing Nazi SA stormtroopers not only competed with each other for control of the government, but battled each other in the streets.  The treaty of Versailles, and later the Great Depression, produced inflation, effectively making currency worthless.  As a result, many people resorted to desperate means of survival, and crime and prostitution grew as a result.  During this time, police identified 62 organized criminal gangs operating inside Berlin.  Berlin became a capital of vice.  Aside from prostitution, it was also a hub for drugs (cocaine and heroin) and black market goods. Thrill seekers sought out Berlin as a destination and guide books were produced highlighting Berlin's erotic nightlife entertainment.  There were an estimated 500 venues, ranging from cabarets to brothels, with some catering to homosexual, lesbian, and transgender clientele.  Many Berliners, living in a world of sexual freedom and criminal violence. Became fascinated with lust-murders, or “lustmord,” and publishers met this demand by printing cheap crime novels called 'Krimi.”  

German art, literature, music, and film was made up of Expressionists, Dada, and a movement called the New Objectivity.  Expressionism and Dada had their roots before and during the War years, but the New Objectivity dominated German aesthetics starting in 1920.  Otto Dix and George Grosz formed their own version of New Objectivity called Verism in Berlin.  Verism refers to classical Roman aesthetic, Verus, meaning truth, warts and all.  The new Objectivity rejected Expressionism, with its reliance on Romanticism, fantasy, subjectivity, raw emotion and impulse, and focused instead on representing facts and real circumstances.  New Objectivity themes included the horrors of war, social hypocrisy, moral decadence, the plight of the poor, and the rise of Nazism.  Politically, the New Objectivity was left leaning and iconoclastic; they were hostile to big business and bourgeois society, as well as Prussian militarism and authoritarianism.  

Otto Dix, Self Portrait as Target, 1915

Otto Dix 

Otto Dix was a German Expressionist artist who volunteered for the German Army during the First World War.  He was at first assigned to a field artillery regiment, but in the autumn of 1915 he was transferred to a machine-gun unit on the Western Front and participated in the Battle of the Somme.  By the war's end, Dix had fought on both fronts, and was going to get training as a pilot before he was wounded in the neck.  Dix was  profoundly affected by his experiences during the war and would suffer recurring nightmares as a result.  In 1924 Dix produced a series of etchings that documented his experiences during the war.  Dix's etchings rival Goya's Disasters of War series from 1810-1820 for their gruesome depictions of the horrors of war.  

During the 1920's Dix tried to live a respectable life.  He married and had three children.  Dix began to have some success as a painter and was invited to teach art at the Dresden Academy.  As an artist, Dix viewed himself as both an Expressionist and an objective documenter of his times:  "Art is exorcism. I paint dreams and visions too; the dreams and visions of my time. Painting is the effort to produce order; order in yourself. There is much chaos in me, much chaos in our time." 

When the Nazis came to power, Dix was regarded as a degenerate artist and had him fired from his post as professor of art at Dresden Academy.  Dix had two painting, his War Cripples and The Trench, in the Entartete Kunst exhibition in 1937.  These works were later burned.  Dix was then forced to join the Nazi government's Reich Chamber of Fine Arts and had to promise to only paint inoffensive landscapes.  In 1939 Dix was arrested on a trumped-up charge of being involved in an assassination plot against Hitler, but was later released.  Later, during the Second World War, when Germany's fortunes reversed, Dix was conscripted into the Volkssturm home guard.  He was captured by French troops and was held in a POW camp until February 1946.  

Photograph of artist George Grosz

George Grosz

George Grosz was a Dada artist who served in the German Army during the First World War.    After the war, Grosz, along with Dix, would become a New Objectivity artist and make art examining the Weimar Republic's wounded soldiers, prostitutes, politicians, and profiteers.  Grosz was an expert in depicting the despair and wretchedness of man.

In Novermber 1914, at the outbreak of the war, Grosz volunteered for the Army in hopes that  he would avoid conscription and being sent to the front.  Disillusioned, he became a strong opponent of the war and was released for being unfit for duty.  A year later, however, he was recalled into the Army and given the assignment of transporting and guarding prisoners of war.  In 1917 Grosz was diagnosed as suffering from shell-shock.  After he attempted suicide, he was hospitalized before being discharged.  For the duration of the war, Grosz, along with his friend John Heartfield, began making anti-war art.  In 1918 Grosz joined the Communist Party.  In January of 1919, Grosz participated in the Spartakus uprising.  Grosz escaped escaped arrest by using faked identification documents.  

In the late 1920's and early 1930's Grosz made art directly attacking Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party.  In 1932 Grosz was forced to flee Germany and settled in the United States before becoming a citizen in 1938.  Critics of Grosz say that while in the United States his work became sentimental and Romantic.  After the war, Grosz returned to Germany, where he died on July 6th, 1959, from a drunken fall down a flight of stairs.

Post-Note

A few years back a friend of mine said my work reminded her of Otto Dix.  This surprised me a little bit, as Dix has not been a conscious influence.  It is true that since 2008 most of my work (particularly my drawings) has been a kind of social criticism.  I suppose I could chalk it up to post-graduate disillusionment and the fact that I graduated during a recession.  Before that my work had a more Expressionistic and Romantic tendency.  I don't mind being compared to Otto Dix.  There are worse people to be compared with.

Early Influence: Edvard Munch by Chris Hall

Edvard Munch was a Norwegian painter and printmaker born December 12, 1863.  The themes of much of his work include love, anxiety, infidelity, sexual humiliation, and separation in life and death.  His work is viewed as an exemplar of the fin-de-siècle anxiety and apocalyptic attitudes of the time as they show not physical reality, but psychological reality.  

Munch believed himself born into a cursed family.  Munch’s mother died of tuberculosis in 1868, and his sister Sophie died of the same in 1877.  Munch himself was often ill and spent a lot of time away from school.  Supported by his father, who was a medical officer in the military, the Munch family grew up poor, and they frequently moved from one small apartment to another.  Mental illness also ran in the family.  Another of Munch’s sisters was diagnosed at a young age, and Munch would later spend 8 months in a hospital in 1908.

Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Munch needed art to help explain suffering.  Munch would write, “In my art I attempt to explain life and its meaning to myself.”  Munch’s choice to be an artist was not supported by his father or his community, who frowned upon his bohemian and non-traditional ways.  Munch began by painting in a more Impressionist style, and based on his talent his secured a scholarship in France, where he would see the work of Gauguin and Van Gogh.  Both became very influential on his work. His new work showed signs of what would be later called Expressionism.  His stated goal was "the study of the soul, that is to say the study of my own self.”  At first Munch sold very little, but managed to make a little money by charging entrance fees to people who just wanted to see his controversial paintings.  He was also a little loath to part with his work, which he called “his children,” because he viewed his whole body of work to be a single expression.  In order to make sales he began transcribing his work into wood-block prints and lithographs.

In 1893 Munch painted The Scream, generally thought to represent the universal anxiety of modern man.  Concerning the genesis of the work Munch would write:  

"I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly, the sky turned as red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired. Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature."

He later described the personal anguish behind the painting, "for several years I was almost mad… You know my picture, 'The Scream?' I was stretched to the limit—nature was screaming in my blood… After that I gave up hope ever of being able to love again."

Munch met with some success, particularly in Berlin with his Frieze of Life exhibition in 1902.  Of this time in his life Munch would write in his journal, "After twenty years of struggle and misery forces of good finally come to my aid in Germany—and a bright door opens up for me."  Life seemed to be finally going well for Munch, and he even almost married the wealthy and “liberated” Tulla Larsen, but Munch’s self-destructive and erratic behavior caught up with him and he began to spiral out of control.  There were heavy drinking, fights with other artists, and even an accidental shooting that lead to Munch losing the use of his middle finger on this left hand.  

In the autumn of 1908, Munch began to hallucinate and hear voices.  His anxiety and depression, compounded by heavy drinking, finally forced him to enter a hospital under the care of Dr. Daniel Jacobson, who prescribed for him a new form of electroshock therapy.  He stayed in the hospital for 8 months before being released.  Meanwhile, Munch’s work was beginning to be appreciated abroad.  He had a show in the United States and even conservative Norway started to warm to his work.  Munch could finally return to Oslo and support his remaining family.  As shown in his 1909 painting The Sun, Munch’s Dark Night of the Soul was over.  

After his stay in the hospital, many felt Munch’s work changed.  Art history would show that much of his great work was behind him.  World War I saw Munch’s loyalties divided.  He loved France, but many of his friends were German.  He nearly died in the Spanish Influenza pandemic, but would survive to make more art for two more decades.  In the 1930’s Hitler’s Germany declared Munch’s art to be degenerate, and removed his work (82 of his paintings) from all their museums.  His German patrons, many Jewish, lost their fortunes and some their lives when the Nazis came to power.  Fortunately for Munch, he began to find new patrons in Norway.  Most of Munch’s work would avoid the flames and would be sold back to Norway.  

In 1940, the Germans invaded Norway and the Nazi party took over the government. Munch was 76 years old.  Norway’s Nazi puppet government offered Munch the figurehead position of its Honorary Board of Norwegian Artists. Munch refused and the Board was dropped.  With nearly an entire collection of his art in the second floor of his house, Munch lived in fear of a Nazi confiscation.  Munch died near Oslo in January of 1944.  He was 80.  Munch bequeathed his estate and all the paintings, prints, and drawings in his possession to the city of Oslo, who would erect a museum for him in 1963.  In a strange twist of fate, the Nazis in Norway hijacked Munch’s corpse, and instead of a simple burial in a family plot, Munch was given a state funeral with gigantic Nazi insignia and flags, giving the people of Oslo the impression that Munch was a Nazi sympathizer, which he clearly was not. 

Edvard Munch was very influential on my own work as a young artist and student.  I would honor his approach to painting as path toward self-examination and discovery.  I was not interested in physical realism, but psychological realism.  I would even emulate his style, using his sinuous, radiating line work and his apocalyptic color in some of my paintings.  Although Munch informed much of my early work, I would like to think I have grown away from making work based solely on my own reality.  I still create artwork for my own self-discovery, but I also want to be critical of my times as well.  Hopefully this new work will fare better than Munch’s work after 1909.  

Anselm Kiefer by Chris Hall

Anselm Kiefer, The Starry Heavens Above Us, The Moral Law Within, 1969/2010

Anselm Kiefer, The Starry Heavens Above Us, The Moral Law Within, 1969/2010

Art is difficult, it’s not entertainment.  Anselm Kiefer  

To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.  Theodor Adorno


Born just a few months before the end of World War II in 1945, Kiefer grew up among the ash and ruins of postwar Germany.  Kiefer’s work directly addresses Adorno’s statement, that “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” and questions how beauty and culture can continue to have any meaning.  Kiefer also wants to understand how the Nazis leveraged art and culture into killing.  In this respect, Kiefer’s body of work is primarily reflective of the new German word Vergangenheitsbewältigung.  Invented in the late 1950’s, Vergangenheitsbewältigung translates roughly as “struggle to come to terms with the past.”  Kiefer believes that one can not progress into the future until the past has been properly dealt with.  Although much of his early work addresses issues specific to Germany, his output in more recent years has expanded into more universal concerns.

Anselm Kiefer began making work in 1969 and would become a student of Joseph Beuys.  Kiefer’s first opus, his Occupations, had him traveling around to different sites in Europe, sometimes in his father’s Army uniform, and then having himself photographed giving the Nazi salute.  It may seem a bit shocking, but there is a moral heart to Kiefer’s work.  Kiefer wants to ensure that the horrors of the Holocaust remain fresh in collective memory.

Some of Kiefer's Occupations. Click to enlarge the images.

In his paintings and sculpture, Kiefer reexamines German history, mythology, and culture, everything from Wagner operas, German Romanticism, the poetry of Holocaust survivor Paul Celan, the architecture of Albert Speer, and the Third Reich, but he also references theology, occult symbolism, alchemy, mysticism, and the Kabbalah.   The weighty subject matter is often mirrored in the physicality of the works itself, which are often large scale and monumental.  Epic in size and scope, Kiefer’s work become visions of the apocalyptic sublime.  His paintings are mixed media endeavors, dense and heavy with impasto paint mixed with straw, dried flowers and plants, lead, sand, broken glass, ash, clay, shellac, gold leaf, copper wire, rusted metal, broken ceramics, woodcuts, charred photographs, and wood.  Kiefer uses a variety of application and reduction techniques, including a blowtorch.  

Some of Kiefer's early work.  Click to enlarge the image.

In the 1990’s Kiefer’s focus grew from focusing on Germany’s role in civilization to the fate of art and culture in general.  He began to explore universal myths of existence about the trauma experienced by all societies, from inevitable destruction to continued renewal and rebirth.  By examining the past, Kiefer seeks personal, national, and universal healing and absolution of collective guilt.  In 1999 the Japan Art Association awarded Kiefer the Praemium Imperiale for this lifetime achievements.  The explanatory statement reads:  

Kiefer worked with the conviction that art could heal a traumatized nation and a vexed, divided world . . . Only a few contemporary artists have such a pronounced sense of art's duty to engage the past and the ethical questions of the present, and are in the position to express the possibility of the absolution of guilt through human effort.

Some of Kiefer's later work.  Click to enlarge the image.

Kiefer is known for keeping giant studio complexes which he turns into site specific monuments with his painting and sculpture.  Most recently Kiefer purchased the decommissioned Mulheim-Karlich nuclear reactor plant.  In 2010 Kiefer’s studio in Barjac, France was the subject of a documentary called Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow.  The 35 hectare studio complex was built in the ruins of an abandoned silk factory.  You can watch the documentary on Youtube.  Here is a trailer for the film.

I first saw Anselm Kiefer's work sometime during the early or mid 1990's, either at the Cincinnati Art Museum or Atlanta's High Museum of Art.  I have always been attracted to his willingness to tackle the big subjects, life, death, and the possibility of re-birth as well as his use of mixed media and his painterly technique.  I also agree with Kiefer's stance on anti-art, that is he bemoans it, but acknowledges it's right to exist.  For these reasons I am happy to call Anselm Kiefer both an influence and an ally.

Kirchner and Nolde by Chris Hall

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Self Portrait as Soldier, 1917

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was a founding member of the German Expressionist group Die Brucke (The Bridge).  Kirchner and many of his compatriots sensed the tension in air of pre World War One Germany, and they reflected it in their work.  When war broke out, Kirchner, fearing being drafted into infantry, decided to enlist as an artillery driver.  During the war he suffered a nervous breakdown and was put into a hospital.  The post war years were likewise unkind to him, and he became depressed with the growth of Nazism and the condemnation of his work.  639 works of his was confiscated from German museums and galleries.  Many were shown in the Entartete Kunst exhibit of 1937 and were subsequently sold off or destroyed.  In 1938 Kirchner shot himself in a cabin outside Davos.  

More work by Kirchner.  Click to enlarge.

Emil Nolde

Emil Nolde, Still Life With Carved Wooden Figure, 1911

Emil Nolde, another Die Brucke painter, had a better fate.  He managed to sit out World War One and his work met with success in the 1920’s.  Nolde joined the Nazi Party in 1920, shortly after Hitler.  Despite his support of the party, from 1935 on his work began to be confiscated from German museums, with 1,052 works removed in 1937 alone.  Nolde’s work was featured prominently in the Entartete Kunst exhibit, with 29 pieces, more than any other artist in the show.  In 1941 Nolde was told he was not allowed to paint anymore, even in private.  Despite the order, Nolde continued to paint in private, mostly watercolors on scrap pieces of paper.  He called these works his “Unpainted Pictures.”

More work by Emil Nolde.  Click to enlarge.

I was heavily influenced by both of these artists early on.  I liked their use of color and their championing of subjective expression.  I also empathized with their stories.  In Kirchner’s case, I related to his sensitivity to the environment, and in Nolde’s case, I liked that he felt compelled to paint, despite the risks involved in defying the Nazi government.