World War I

Pablo Picasso Part One by Chris Hall

“That fucking Picasso . . . He's done everything!”  Jackson Pollock

“To copy others is necessary, but to copy oneself is pathetic.”  Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973) was a Spanish artist, who spent most of his adult life in France.  He generally regarded as one of the greatest and most influential artists of the 20th century.  Picasso's earlier career is marked by his jumping from one avant-garde style to another, from Post-Impressionist and Symbolist work, to his Blue and Rose periods, Proto-Cubist Primitive work, Analytical and Synthetic Cubism, Neoclassic works, and then to Expressionistic Surrealist work.  

“Success is dangerous. One begins to copy oneself, and to copy oneself is more dangerous than to copy others. It leads to sterility.”  Pablo Picasso

“Good artists copy, great artists steal.”  Pablo Picasso

Post Impressionist Period

The son of an art teacher, Picasso began studying art in the academic tradition at age 13.  At that age, Picasso already showed signs of great things to come.  In 1900, Picasso left Spain with his best friend Carlos Casagemas, to work in the art capital of Europe, the Montparnasse district of Paris, France.  Picasso lived in abject poverty and desperate circumstances with his roommate, the poet Max Jacob.  Not much of Picasso's earliest work survives, as Picasso reportedly burned a lot of this work for warmth when he first moved to France.  

“Painting is a blind man's profession. He paints not what he sees, but what he feels, what he tells himself about what he has seen.”  Pablo Picasso

The Blue Period

In 1901, Picasso's best friend Carlos Casagemas committed suicide over the unrequited love of Germaine Pichot.  Picasso's own depression following the suicide, the guilt of dating Germaine Pichot after his death, along with his poverty, would lead to the works of the Blue Period.  Earlier, Picasso's art was starting to attract attention, but just when people were getting acclimated to his work, he abruptly changed style to the Blue Period.  The subject matter of the Blue Period included starving mothers with children, beggars, and prostitutes.  The public found this work too depressing, and it did not sell, thus continuing the cycle of poverty.  

“The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.”  Pablo Picasso

“We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand.”  Pablo Picasso

The Rose Period

In 1904, as Picasso's depression lifted, perhaps because of his new relationship with the bohemian artist and model Fernande Olivier.  Olivier was frequently a model for Picasso in what would become known as the Rose Period.  His colors and subject matter lightened considerably, as he began to paint circus people, acrobats, and harlequins in cheerful orange and pinks tones.  Circus people were still considered societal outcasts, but they were less taboo than his depictions of poverty in the Blue Period.  During this time, Picasso also met the Americans Leo and Gertrude Stein, who began collecting his work.  At one of their parties, he also met Henri Matisse for the first time, who would become his lifelong friend and rival.  

“Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.”  Pablo Picasso

“I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them.”  Pablo Picasso

Proto-Cubist Work

In 1906, Picasso began to find inspiration in African sculpture and masks.  Parisians were being exposed to it for the first time as a result of French colonial expansion into Sub-Saharan Africa.  During this time Picasso was also influenced by Iberian sculpture and art from Oceania.  These new influences would culminate into Picasso's breakthrough painting, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907).   Picasso's Proto-Cubist work would easily transition itself to his next painting phase, Analytical Cubism.

“The world today doesn't make sense, so why should I paint pictures that do?”  Pablo Picasso

“Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.”  Pablo Picasso

Analytic Cubism

Picasso, with Georges Braque, is credited with the invention of Cubism.  The first phase, Analytic Cubism, began in 1909.  In Analytical Cubism, Picasso and Braque (and later many others) dissected and analyzed objects in terms of their shapes.  The broken up shapes were reassembled into abstract compositions, often painted in monochrome brownish and neutral colors.  Also, instead of the subject being depicted from one viewpoint, Analytical Cubism shows the subject from many viewpoints at the same time.  During this time, Picasso and company were notorious for their wild, bohemian lifestyle.  Picasso's friend, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, was arrested on suspicion of stealing the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911.  Picasso was also brought in, but both were later exonerated.  

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.”  Pablo Picasso

Synthetic Cubism

Picasso's Cubist innovations had given him some new fortune and fame.  In 1912, Picasso left Olivier for a new girl, Marcelle Humbert, who he called Eva Gouel. He had fallen madly in love with Eva, and would declare his love for her in the title of some of paintings.  Nevertheless, Picasso still managed to have an affair with another woman, Gaby Lespinasse, though he was devastated when Eva died of tuberculosis in 1915, age, 30.  As a Spanish citizen, Picasso was not expected to fight for France during the First World War.  He used this time to further develop his Cubist style, which became known as Synthetic Cubism.  Picasso created Synthetic Cubism in 1912.  Synthetic Cubism reintroduced color into Picasso's palette.  Through Synthetic Cubism, Picasso also gave the world another innovation, the collage and assemblage, which would have far reaching implications for Modern Art.  

“Never permit a dichotomy to rule your life, a dichotomy in which you hate what you do so you can have pleasure in your spare time. Look for a situation in which your work will give you as much happiness as your spare time.”  Pablo Picasso

Neoclassic Works

In the summer of 1918, Picasso married the ballerina, Olga Khoklova, who he had met the year before in Rome, while designing a set for a ballet.  In the fall of 1918, the First World War ended.  Both of these things would have a calming effect on Picasso's art.  This era in Picasso's oeuvre  would become known as his Neoclassical Period.  The calmness of Picasso's work during this time, however, soon began to mask Picasso's troubled marriage.  Olga was all class and high society, while Picasso had more bohemian interests and pursuits.   Nevertheless, they had a child together, Paulo, born 1921.  Picasso's marriage to Olga would collapse in 1927, when he took the younger Marie-Thérèse Walter as his mistress.  Picasso refused to divorce Olga in order to prevent her from acquiring half of his wealth, as was French law, and the two would remain separated until her death in 1955.

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.

Mark Rothko by Chris Hall

Mark Rothko was an American Color Field and Abstract Expressionist painter.  With Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, his considered to be one of the most famous postwar American artists.  Rothko's art grew from representational to amorphous mythological subjects, to pure abstract, non-objective fields of color and light.  Rothko was born in Dvinsk, Russia (now Latvia), in 1903.  Fearing that Mark Rothko's older brothers might be drafted into the army on the eve of the First World War, the Rothko family emigrated  to Portland, Oregon, in the United States.  

Rothko received a scholarship to Yale, but when the scholarship was not renewed after his first year, Rothko worked as a waiter and delivery boy to pay for his education.  He found the Yale community to be elitist and racist, dropped out at the end of his sophomore year, and moved to New York City to study art. Rothko enrolled in the New York School of Design, where he worked with instructor and abstract artist Arshile Gorky.  Rothko thought Gorky a domineering figure, and so he left to take classes at the Art Student's League, taught by cubist artist and instructor Max Weber.  Under Max Weber, Rothko began to view art as a tool for emotional and religious expression.  Rothko's early influences were the works of the German Expressionists and the surrealist artist, Paul Klee.  Rothko also met fellow artists Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman.  The Rothko family did not understand his decision to be an artist, especially in the middle of the Great Depression.  Rothko, however, like Gorky, Pollock, de Kooning, many other artists, found employment with the Works Progress Administration.

When World War Two erupted, Rothko felt that a new art was needed with a new subject matter that would have social impact, yet would also be able to transcend the confines of political symbols and values.  Rothko also wanted this new subject matter to complement his growing interest in form, space, and color.  He temporarily stopped painting in 1940 and immersed himself in studying Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough, Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams, the works of Carl Jung, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, and others.  From this was born Rothko's “Mythomorphic Abstractionism” period.  

 Rothko's interest in using mythology to transcend the troubled times was not unique.  Gottlieb, Newman, and Pollock were at a similar crossroads in their art, using mythological symbolism to bridge the gap between representation and pure abstraction.  They were all interested in dream theory and the archetypes of the collective unconscious, and believed that by using mythological symbolism they could transcend specific history and culture.

Rothko had a noble goal in mind for his art.  He wanted to relieve modern man's spiritual emptiness, which he believed resulted from a lack of mythology.  Rothko felt his art could free unconscious energies in the viewer, which were previously liberated by mythological images, symbols, and rituals.  In this respect, Rothko viewed himself as a modern day “mythmaker,” and proclaimed  that "the exhilarated tragic experience is for me the only source of art.

Rothko debuted his new paintings in 1942, at a show in a New York City Macy's department store.  In response to a negative critical review of the show by the New York Times, Rothko and Gottlieb issued a manifesto where they stated, "We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth."  Rothko and Gottlieb also fired a broadside toward those who would prefer a less challenging art, writing that their work “must insult anyone who is spiritually attuned to interior decoration.”

In June of 1943, Rothko and his wife Edith separated.  Rothko suffered a long depression following his divorce.  Thinking that a change of scenery would help, Rothko returned to Portland.  From Portland, Rothko traveled to Berkeley, where he met and befriended the artist Clyfford Still.  At this time, Still had already eschewed surrealist representation in favor of pure, non-objective abstraction.  Rothko looked at Still's work and saw his future.  Rothko's experiments in unconscious symbolism had run its course; abstraction would be the next step.

In 1945 Rothko painted Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea, showing his new-found interest in abstraction.  His new work possessed a more organic structure, often featuring blurred blocks of various colors.  They were devoid of any reference to the figure or the landscape.  Rothko thought that these new works, by shedding figurative qualities, had a life force  of their own and contained the “breath of life.”  Rothko discovered his trademark symmetrical rectangular blocks of two or three opposing and contrasting, yet complementary colors in the winter of 1949.  He also began to use large, vertically formatted canvases, which he intended to make the viewer feel “enveloped within” the painting.

Rothko viewed his work as living entities.  As he began to achieve success, he also began to be increasingly protective of his works, turning down several potentially important sales and exhibition opportunities.  Of this, Rothko would write, “A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer.  It dies by the same token.  It is therefore a risky and unfeeling act to send it out into the world.  How often it must be permanently impaired by the eyes of the vulgar and the cruelty of the impotent who would extend the affliction universally!” 

Beginning in 1950, Rothko started to meet with financial success and fame.  Despite his success, Rothko felt himself isolated and a sense of being misunderstood as an artist began to developed.  He feared that the people purchasing his paintings were doing so simply out of fashion and that the true purpose of his work was not being grasped by his collectors, critics, and audience.  Compounding his isolation, many of his friends began to abandon him, Rothko's new fame and patrons not sitting well with them.  Old friend Clyfford Still even asked for the return of his of gifted paintings.

Rothko defended himself against accusations of selling out.  He maintained that his work was “only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on. And the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions . . . The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationship, then you miss the point.”

Some people, however, did understand Rothko's work.  New friend and poet Stanley Kunitz saw Rothko as "a primitive, a shaman who finds the magic formula and leads people to it." Great poetry and painting, Kunitz believed, both had "roots in magic, incantation, and spell-casting" and were, at their core, ethical and spiritual.  Rothko was insistent upon the proper interpretation of his work and worked hard to spread his message.  In 1958 Mark Rothko spoke at the Pratt Institute and gave his recipe for a work of art:

1.  There must be a clear preoccupation with death - intimations of mortality... Tragic art, romantic art, etc., deals with the knowledge of death. 2. Sensuality. Our basis of being concrete about the world. It is a lustful relationship to things that exist. 3. Tension. Either conflict or curbed desire. 4. Irony, This is a modern ingredient - the self-effacement and examination by which a man for an instant can go on to something else. 5. Wit and play... for the human element. 6. The ephemeral and chance... for the human element. 7. Hope. 10% to make the tragic concept more endurable.  I measure these ingredients very carefully when I paint a picture. It is always the form that follows these elements and the picture results from the proportions of these elements.

That same year the beverage company Joseph Seagram and Sons had completed their new building on Park Avenue.  Rothko agreed to provide paintings for the building's new luxury restaurant, The Four Seasons.  Other three months Rothko completed forty paintings in a series of dark reds and browns.  Shortly afterward, Rothko, with his new wife Mell, sailed to Europe aboard the SS Independence where he joked with Harper's Magazine publisher John Fischer that his true intention for the Seagram's murals was to paint "something that will ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room.”  He hoped that his paintings would make the restaurant's patron's "feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up, so that all they can do is butt their heads forever against the wall."  Upon his return to New York, Rothko and Mell visited the nearly completed Four Seasons restaurant.  Rothko became upset with the restaurant's dining atmosphere, which he considered pretentious and inappropriate for his work.  Rothko quit the project and returned his cash advance to the Seagram and Sons Company.  

By the 1960's the art world began to turn away from Abstract Expressionism, turning their gaze toward the next big thing, Pop Art, particularly the work of Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Rosenquist.  Rothko labeled Pop artists as “charlatans and young opportunists,” and wondered aloud during a 1962 Pop Art exhibition, “Are the young artists plotting to kill us all?”  On looking at Jasper Johns' flag paintings, Rothko said, “We worked for years to get rid of all that.”  Rothko knew that his fame would be fleeting, and that he would eventually be replaced, but what he could not fathom was that he would be replaced by Pop Art, which he found sterile and vapid.

Rothko spent his last years working on a commission for a chapel in Houston, Texas, which he believed would be the artistic pinnacle of his career.  He would never see the installation of his work.  Rothko and his wife Mell separated on New Year's Day, 1969, and he moved into his studio.  On February 25th, 1970, studio assistant Oliver Steindecker found Rothko's body lying dead on the floor in front of the sink, covered in blood.  He had sliced open his arms.  An autopsy also revealed that he had overdosed on anti-depressants.  He was sixty-six years old.  On February 28th, 1971, at the Rothko chapel dedication in Houston, Dominique de Menil said, "We are cluttered with images and only abstract art can bring us to the threshold of the divine."  I believe Rothko would have agreed with him.  Initially the chapel was to be Roman Catholic, but within three years the chapel expanded to become non-denominational. 

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.  

Early Influences: Schiele and Klimt by Chris Hall

Egon Schiele,  Gustav Klimt in his Blue Painter's Smock , 1913

Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt in his Blue Painter's Smock, 1913

Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt (along with Edvard Munch) heavily influenced my drawing during my first two years as a student at the University of Georgia.  In 1995 I even filled an entire sketch book copying Egon Schiele’s work.  I fell in love with their line work which is searching, sensual, and organic, like the very fiber of life.  Below is a little about Schiele and Klimt.  Sometime later I will devote an entire blog post to Edvard Munch.

Egon Schiele

Egon Schiele was an Austrian painter born in 1890.  His work is known for its intensity and its expression of raw sexuality.  His figure drawings and paintings, many of them self-portraits, often have twisted body shapes defined by expressive contour lines.  The work is often suggestive of sex, death, and the grotesque, with a disturbing eroticism bordering on the pornographic.  In 1907 Schiele sought out Gustav Klimt as a mentor, who was impressed with his work enough to help him secure exhibitions and patrons.  As a young artist-bohemian, he lived an unconventional lifestyle that led him to being driven out of one town and being imprisoned in another.  Eventually Schiele decided to settle down and marry Edith Harms in 1915, but three days later he was conscripted for the Austrian Army as the First World War exploded across the continent.  Schiele was lucky to get a reasonably comfortable assignment as guard and clerk in a POW camp in Prague, and Edith was allowed to follow him.  But in the fall of 1918, tragedy came in the form of the Spanish Flu pandemic, which would kill over 20,000,000 people.  First it would take Edith’s life, and then three days later, Egon Schiele’s.  He was 28.  Schiele’s last drawing is of his dying wife.  

Gustav Klimt

Gustav Klimt was an Austrian painter born in 1862.  His work is known for its frank eroticism and decorative elements, often incorporating gold leaf.  The subject of much of his work is women, often in shown in allegorical, symbolist, mythic, and erotic circumstances.  He would also make landscapes and portraiture as well.  Klimt kept his life private, but it was a life marked by sexual hedonism.  He would often dress in a robe and sandals, wearing no undergarments underneath.  Klimt would have many mistresses and would father 14 children.  Early in his career Klimt received many public art commissions, but he would stop taking the commissions after his three paintings for the Great Hall of the University of Vienna were criticized for being pornographic.  These three paintings, Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence, were later destroyed by retreating Nazi SS forces in May of 1945.  Klimt, like Schiele, would die in 1918, from complications brought on by the Spanish Flu.

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.