Final Project: Artists as Social Commentators

Artists serve a variety of purposes in our lives and our societies; sometimes very particular parts of an artist’s purpose changes over time, but the observation that I have made that artists fulfill the role of social commentator seems constant throughout historical and modern times.
In most pre-modern eras, artists were primarily employed by royalty or wealthy patrons to paint portraits of the patrons themselves, their families, their estates or to create monuments or lavish palaces. This in itself is a social commentary, although the artists are unwitting participants of the times. The art itself is a commentary on who was in power, what was in fashion, what was considered attractive or desirable and what the symbols of wealthy status were. As society shifted and conspicuous consumption of the ruling class was rejected in the Neo-Classical Era, artists were once again there, visually commenting on the new social climate.
In modern eras, art has become much more accessible, and the artist isn’t necessarily bound by the subject matter approved by the church or commissioned by their patron. In this blog post, I’ll be discussing the artist as the social commentator in the early modern and post-modern (present) eras through reaction to crisis and call for change.



The Dada movement is what I feel the first moment in art history where artists began to use visual media as a vehicle for their despair and disgust with the social constructs of the age. Dada was born following the horrors of World War I and the unprecedented loss of life that followed.
These artists, without a single unified style or medium, challenged the existing socioeconomic and cultural constructs that led to the Great War, and ultimately failed humanity. Dada poet Hugo Ball wrote, “For us, art is not an end in itself, but it is an opportunity for the true perception and criticism for the times we live in,” (Museum of Modern Art).



“Bild mit heller Mitte (Picture with Light Centre),” Kurt Scwhitters (1951)

Kurt Scwhitters was a German Dada artist who had a traditional academic training at the Dresden Academy from 1909-1915. He was prepared for a conventional career as a painter, and his works from this time showed no influences of avant-garde or Cubist art styles. Originally exempt from military service during World War I due to epilepsy, he was later conscripted in 1918 and worked as a technical draftsman in a factory. After the war, he actively sought out connections with the modernist community in Berlin; this sudden shift in his work is attributed to the collapse of economic and political stability in Germany that coincided with the rise of the multi-national Dada movement (The Art Story.org).
He is credited with bringing collage to the forefront of the art world with his harmonious compositions created out of garbage from the streets from Post-World War I Europe. Train tickets, magazine scraps, lace and other printed media made it into his works. Scwhitters actively produced artistic journals, illustrated works, advertisements and even predicted many of the ideas and activities of the Post-Modern era of the 1960’s (such as assemblage and installation). He brought together artwork, ideas, sounds and words into unusual combinations, hoping for the audience to find their own meanings in the work (The Art Story.org). Through his works, he brought forth the commentary that art and the everyday can be synonymous.
I looked through galleries of countless works of Kurt Schwitters for this assignment, and I always ended up coming back to this particular one. I enjoy the composition of this image, the circular shape in the center that is broken up by straight lines and squares tracing the outline of collaged elements, and the use of paint to bring all of the elements into one (mostly) seamless piece of artwork. The influences of Cubist and Expressionist artists is evident here, as I see the broken up geometric shapes favored by cubists, but I also see fields of color that remind me a little bit of Rothko’s color fields. I like that while the printed words of his collaged materials are evident, they are not obvious. Some of them are layered over with paint and some of them are not, which makes them more bold. This treatment of the printed materials along with use of color gives this abstract piece a little bit of a depth of field. I very much enjoy this collage!


“Bicycle Wheel,” Marchel Duchamp (1951)

What would a discussion of early modern artwork and social commentary be without Duchamp and his readymades? Marcel Duchamp sent shockwaves through the art world when he signed a urinal, placed it on a pedestal and called it art. Through the idea of readymades, manufactured objects that are selected by the artist and then designated as art (Museum of Modern Art), the discussion of art came down to its barest form in a single question: what is art? This challenged the notion that the arts were on a higher society pedestal, and that a painted or sculpted piece of artwork was more valuable and more art than an object created by a skilled craftsman or technical laborer.
The first version of the bicycle wheel was created in 1913 was lost, having been created almost forty years earlier than the 1951 Bicycle Wheel that has been catalog. Because teh materials that Duchamp selected to be readymades were mass-procduced, he didn’t consider readymade artworks to be an “original.” This certainly challenged what society considers art, and in many ways, still does today! I feel like the reactions of the art world with regard to Duchamp’s readymades are almost more of a social commentary than the artwork itself. And that, friends, is Dada.
Personally, I am not overly fond of Duchamp’s works. My preference for artwork is definitely two-dimensional and not manufactured beyond printed material used in collage. I don’t find urinals or stools with upside down bicycle wheels to hold my interest or really be all that relateable. What I do appreciate is Duchamp’s intent. He intended to challenge the preconceived notions of what art is, alongside the extensive history and exclusivity of art. I feel that he certainly succeeded.



In a previous blog post, I discussed the history of the Spanish Civil War and famous artworks of the time that called attention to the bloody conflict. I wanted to include propaganda posters alongside the works of Picasso, Miro and Dali, but couldn’t quite figure out how to include manufactured prints alongside original paintings that held deeply personal meanings of the artists themselves. So with the final project, I am glad that I can include these!
As a reminder of the historical context, the Spanish monarchy was overthrown in 1931 and a republic government with regular elections was installed in its place. General Franco opposed this government with his national political faction called the Falanges and with the aid of Nazi Germany and Facist Italy, went to war with the Republic. The Republic fled to Barcelona, and sought to preserve Spain’s artistic heritage. Through this, propaganda posters were created by fine artists and amateur artists alike as a call to action and a boost to morale.


“Hoy más que nunca, VICTORIA (Today more than ever, VICTORY),” Signed: Renau, 1938. Lithograph.

This is one of the staggering amount of propaganda posters created during the Spanish Civil War. It was designed in Barcelona by Josep Renau, who was one of the artists most heavily involved in the war. He spirited paintings out of Valencia to safety in Spain and even helped organize the Spanish Pavilion in Paris in 1937 (where Picasso’s mural Guernica was displayed). Renau had a career as a painter and graphic designer, which is evident in the skill used in the design of his poster (The Visual Front).
This image comments on the social situation of the time: the Republic, holed up in Barcelona, aided by the Soviet Union, heavily bombarded by Franco. Although the colors are bright and the aviator seems to be both smiling and shouting, it strikes me as a rallying cry in a desperate time.



“Looters,” Banksy, New Orleans (2008)

No Post-Modern discussion about artists as social commentators would be complete without Banksy! The anonymous graffiti artist with easily recognizable work has “bombed” locations all over the world; some of his artwork is whimsical with a tinge of irony, and others are direct criticism of capitalistic society and military power. Banksy works with stencils and spraypaint, creating his works anonymously. It is also worth noting that Banksy is very much in control of his own narrative, and has identified Marcel Duchamp as an influence in his work.
Although I am not crazy about Banksy, mostly from the fanfare of his fanbase of disenfranchised adolescents, I do understand and appreciate the technique and intent of his work. It takes a lot of guts to vandalize someone’s property with imagery that directly opposses the nature of their business or the politics of the country the property is in. This image stood out to me because of the dark black shape of the window, spraypainted next to an actual window. Banksy’s treatment of simplified shadows makes it look like the man on the left is climbing out of an actual window, which is a matter of technique that I appreciate.




“Midway: Message from the Gyre,” Chris Jodran, Midway Atoll (2009-Current)

Chris Jordan’s photography has been widely circulated on blogs and social media feeds for the shock value to the average Faceobok user as well as the social commentary. Jordan’s ongoing work Midway highlights the consequences of humanity’s mass consumption. It is a fact that plastics are not biodegradable; they break down into microscopic pieces, but never truly decompose. Plastics that are irresponsibly disposed of in the ocean follow currents into the pacific ocean and end up in the Pacific Gyre, or the Midway Atoll, thousands of miles away from the nearest continent.
Jordan’s work documents the lethal quantities of discarded plastic that is foraged by albatross and fed to their chicks. The albatross mistake the floating debris as food when they are foraging. The images are heartbreaking to look at, and they force humanity to face its consumption being directly responsible for the death of another living being. Decaying organic matter contrasts inorganic plastics in color, shape and texture.
“For me, kneeling over their carcasses is like looking into a macabre mirror. These birds reflect back an appallingly emblematic result of the collective trance of consumerism and runaway growth,” Jordan wrote about Midway in 2011 (Chris Jordan).




“Conflict Kitchen,” Dawn Weleski and John Rubin, Pittsburgh (2010)

Conflict Kitchen was started by a duo of artists who wanted to create a service-industry public installation (Complex.com). This, however, has a sticking point: they would only serve cuisine from nations that the United States is in conflict with. Each iteration of the kitchen features a facade specific to the nation and hosts events, performances, publications and discussion that seek to expand understanding of culture, politics and issues at stake within their region of focus.
I absolutely love the idea of Conflict Kitchen. I think the first reason for this is because I really, really like food. Food is as much of a cultural glue as art is, and sometimes food is art in how delicately it is put together. As far as Conflict Kitchen goes, the intent of art is very evident. Its social commentary is about how food can be the impetus of gatherings between humans and how the average United States citizen rarely engages in international conversation beyond the narrow lens that the media provides (Conflict Kitchen).


The kitchen is still open today and is currently serving Palestinian food.



Works Cited
“Moma | Dada”. Moma.org. N.p., 2017. Web. 30 April 2017.
“Kurt Schwitters Biography, Art, And Analysis Of Works”. The Art Story. N.p., 2017. Web. 30 April 2017.
“The Visual Front – Posters Of The Spanish Civil War”. Libraries.ucsd.edu. N.p., 2017. Web. 30 April 2017.
“80+ Beautiful Street Crimes Done By BANKSY”. Bored Panda. N.p., 2017. Web. 20 April 2017.
“Chris Jordan – Midway”. Chrisjordan.com. N.p., 2017. Web. 30 April 2017.
“The 50 Most Political Art Pieces Of The Past 15 Years31. “Conflict Kitchen,” 2010″. Complex UK. N.p., 2017. Web. 30 April 2017.
“Conflict Kitchen » About”. Conflictkitchen.org. N.p., 2017. Web. 30 April 2017.



Final Thoughts… 

I went into this course begrudgingly, dragging my feet and eyerolling over the fact that I had to take this class again after I had completed my Bachelor of Fine Arts thesis because of a clerical errors and poor time management of the past that I never bothered to correct. I admittedly didn’t have the most optimistic attitude about this class, as it started the way that most art history courses I have taken do. The Renaissance, Italian Masters, so on, and so forth. My attitude changed probably around the time we got to the Romantic and Early Modern eras… I really genuinely appreciated the opportunity to talk about art that truly interested me, that I had seen in person or has happened while I have been out of school. Through this course, I’ve rediscovered my love for art, talking about art and have actually been inspired to create my own artwork after many years of stress-induced illness and depression. Thanks, Lisa, for making an enjoyable online course!


Non-Western Art: Japanese Printmaking

Woodcut printmaking has a rich history in Japan, being traced back as early as the eighth century as a convenient way to reproduce written text. In the mid-1700’s, prints became multi-color illustrations on single sheets of paper. Before then, artists had to hand paint each individual print (Metropolitan Museum of Art). Multi-color or polychrome prints (nishiki-e) were stunning to view back then, and began first as calendars exchanged by wealthy patrons in Edo.


Polychrome prints, while credited to a single artist, actually required a team of skilled artisans and crafters to produce: the designer, the engraver, the printer and the publisher. Each person had their own job from designing the different woodblocks to make up the single polychrome print, actually carving the wood, actually printing the carved design onto paper and selling the printed work. This production model is seen in European woodcut or lithography studios, and even in screen printing shops today.

Some of the most famous Japanese prints are called ukikyo-e, or “images of the floating world.” These are prints of seductive courtesans (often in erotic situations), famous kabuki actors or romantic vistas. Since prints are original pieces of artwork created in editions, the cost of the artwork was relatively low, so ukiyo-e prints enjoyed a wide audience.

Japanese woodcut prints eventually circulated out of Japan and into Europe, which had a profound influence on artists of the Post-Impressionist and Romantic movements. The French even coined a word, Japonisme, for the interest and study of Japanese artwork and culture. Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo in 1888, “All of my work is based to some extent on Japanese art…” (Van Gogh Museum)

Printmaking now is an extremely varied art form, ranging from woodblocks and wood engravings, lithography, silkscreen, aquatint and mezzotint, collagraph, chine colle, hand-coloring and anything and everything in between. There are still print shops today that employ the designer, engraver, engineer and publisher, but it is also very common to see the artist fulfilling all of those roles themselves.

We’re going to take a look at two well-known Japanese ukiyo-e masters, one mid-modern printmaker and a post-modern printmaker.

“The Great Wave Off Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki nami ura)” Katsushika Hokusai, Edo (Tokyo), 1830-32

Hokusai’s Great Wave is one of the most instantly recognizable Japanese prints made, and I would venture to say it is among some of the most recognizable prints in the world. It has also been a long-time favorite artwork of mine, and has even remained on my desktop background for a few years now. I just don’t get tired of looking at it from an aesthetic or technical standpoint.

Aesthetically, I enjoy the fact that the foaming crests of the waves have been illustrated and shaded ever-so-subtly with the lighter blue. It’s not often that I see waves illustrated with defined lines and a limited color palette, rather than layers and layers of blended paint. There’s even dots of white on the canvas for the spray of the waves!

Technically, this print’s registration and color palette are spot-on. Something interesting about Hokusai’s prints is that one of his claims to fame was prints using indigo and the imported pigment Prussian blue (Metropolitan Museum of Art).


“Suido Bridge and the Surugadai Quarter,” from the One Hundred Famous Views of Edo series, Hiroshige, Edo (Tokyo) 1857

Hiroshige is a contemporary of Hokusai, and considered a master of the color woodblock print. His catalog of works number in the thousands and include a series called One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, which I have selected a work from. Suido Bridge and the Surugadai Quarter depicts a koi kite, which are hung on the fifth day of the fifth month in honor of the boy’s festival.

I am immediately drawn to this image for personal reasons, as my married family includes some Japanese customs, such as koi kites! My in-laws hang a giant koi kite from the top of their barn when their grandson comes to visit them.

The formal elements of this print are also quite wonderful as well! I enjoy that the kite takes up a great portion of the foreground with its solid, yet curving form which contrasts the straight, light pole from which it hangs. Hiroshige is able to achieve perspective and a depth of field in this image by how he has layered the elements of his composition: note how the kite hangs in front of the city scene and the little tip of the tail is in front of the kite’s pole.

The usage of colors in this print are nothing short of dreamy for me, which is pretty consistent with the intent of ukiyo-e style. The warm gradation in the sky and the dark gradation of colors in the river create interesting points of light and dark in the composition without being too overwhelming or detracting from the linework.


“Purple Sleeves of my Love,” Shiko Munakata, Japan, 1955




Shiko Munakata is sometimes considered a “Japanese Picasso,” due to how large and expressive his woodcut prints are. He started out as a self-taught painter, but quickly changed course to printmaking after seeing a print by Sumio Kawakumi (Ronin Gallery). Munakata is well-known for his expressive depictions of Buddhist images on a large scale. Traditionally, Japanese artwork had to be small to accomodate the small dwellings and limited wall space of buyers. Munakata’s printmaking has definite Western influences to it (in both pre and post-WWII eras), and remind me a little bit of Chagall, Picasso and other European Expressionists and Cubists.

Japanese Artist Shiko Munakata looking to see if he signed his Flour Hunting Mural in Munakata Gallery. Getty Images, 1959

This image illustrates just how enormous some of his prints are!

“Wooden Bridge,” Morikazu Maeda, 1981

This print stands out to me as a great fusion of a more classic ukiyo-e aesthetic, but with a modern take on printmaking technique and color palette. This image is dreamy but also much darker, with heavier lines on the bridge and a heavier application of color. It looks to me like the grasses in the foreground weren printed directly on top of the colors below, helping achieve a depth of field without lineart.

Works Cited
“Inspiration From Japan”. Vangoghmuseum.nl. N.p., 2017. Web. 23 Apr. 2017.
Art, Author:. “Woodblock Prints In The Ukiyo-E Style | Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline Of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum Of Art”. The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. N.p., 2017. Web. 23 Apr. 2017.
“Under The Wave Off Kanagawa (Kanagawa Oki Nami Ura), Also Known As The Great Wave, From The Series Thirty-Six Views Of Mount Fuji (Fugaku Sanjūrokkei) | Katsushika Hokusai | JP1847 | Work Of Art | Heilbrunn Timeline Of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum Of Art”. The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. N.p., 2017. Web. 23 Apr. 2017.
“Purple Sleeves Of My Love”. Roningallery.com. N.p., 2017. Web. 23 Apr. 2017.

Postmodernism: Environmental Art

Post-modern artwork is our current era of art history, and it encompasses so many themes, ideas, materials and artistic voices. It’s hard to categorize as just one thing. In that vein, I’ll be discussing environmental art, and tie in other influences of postmodernism. Environmental art is one of the first types of installation and ephemeral artwork that I was exposed to as a young adult. I had an art teacher who frequently discussed the work of Andy Goldsworthy, and we’d go on field trips to create our own little pieces of art to later be reclaimed by the tide, weather or nearby critters.


Environmental art is art that is created within nature for purely aesthetic purposes, to help facilitate a closer connection between artist and nature, or to educate or protest the darker sides of globalism and consumerism. Environmental art uses a variety of materials; leafs and twigs woven together, icicles fused together with the artist’s own saliva, or found objects such as those created in large quantities and then discarded.

Andy Goldsworthy was mentioned in our course material for this module, so I know you already have an idea of what his art is about. I absolutely love Goldsworthy’s work. He creates compositions out of entirely gathered natural materials, painstakingly created and then left to the elements after a photograph is taken. Goldsworthy’s artwork exists to us as photographic records of the actual work. Goldsworthy documents his images with a 35mm standard lens and no filters. [[Goldsworthy.cc.gla.ac.uk citation]] He describes “ephemeral art” as, “It’s not about art. It’s just about life and the need to understand that a lot of things in life do not last,” “When I make an ephemeral work, when it’s finished, that’s the moment that it ends, in a way.” (Fresh Air, NPR)

The formal elements of composition are strongly represented in his works. He uses contrasting values, contrasting colors, juxtaposition of shapes and skillful use of light to capture the records of his works.


goldsworthy 1

Dark elm patch, Middleton Woods, Yorkshire (4 November 1980)

Artist journal entry accompanying image:


Diary: 4th Nov.
Middleton Woods.
Underneath Elm Tree
Surface leaves – all colours – some newly
fallen –
found dark leaves –
dark leaf – found light
a more recently fallen leaf
same size – took part
for dark leaf – spat on
underside and “stuck” to
the other leaf – made
dark leaf patch on ground.
Chrichton University Campus, Andy Goldsworthy Digital Collection


This is actually a Goldsworthy image that I had not seen before, but immediately caught my eye. I’m more familiar with his more starkly contrasting leaf arrangements, this one appeals to me because of the more subtle gradation of color and the dark circle made out of dark leaves, instead of holes cut in the leaves themselves. The leaves have already fallen and are beginning to decay, creating a swath of imperfect spots of color within the frame. It’s important to realize that each of these leaves are deliberately placed by the artist, having been found, inspected, appreciated for their imperfections and then finally placed.

Circles are a very common form in Goldsworthy’s works, either in outline or the full, filled-in shape. Circles provide a stable composition, and allow the subtle colors of the decaying leaves to radiate out from it. Note that the circle itself is imperfect by virtue of the imperfect materials used.

This image reminds me of walking trails around the UAF campus at the very end of August. The leaves are just starting to change and fall, but some of them still hold their vibrant green hues.



Horse chestnut leaves
sections torn out
pinned with thorns to sticks pushed into pond bottom
muddy black clouds stirred up around where I worked
over the week the leaves began to fall and the pond rose slightly
work gradually disappearing
Loughborough, Leicestershire
(22 September 1986)


This is another Goldsworthy image I wasn’t familiar with until I began searching catalogs of his work for this assignment. I thought it appropriate to compare his uses of leaves between this image and the previous shown elm leaves. Laying leaves and twigs over still pools of water is a hallmark of Goldsworthy’s work, but the images I’m most familiar with take use the perfect (or nearly perfect) circle forms.

This one stood out to me because the ephemeral work itself does not take up the full space of the frame used. While it is definitely the focus of the frame, the leaf arrangement is shown more in the context of its surroundings as compared to the dark elm leaves shown above. The contrasting elements in this image are not color, but shape — see the organic, meandering outer form of the leaves, and then the straight sections and negative space of the leaf sections themselves.


Mathilde Roussel is a French environmental artist who takes a different approach to ephemeral works than Andy Goldsworthy. Instead of creating works from found materials in nature, Roussel brings natural materials into gallery spaces to create living sculptures. The works of hers that I found most appealing were her “living sculptures,” which are a form of ephemeral work that takes place through the planting, germination, growth and decay of living seeds placed within the sculpture. Her work brings particular attention to the precious resource of soil, and the life-sustaining properties it possesses.



Pangea (Ongoing project as of 16 April 2017).

The Pangea installation is a living sculpture of wheat grain seeded in soil on a metal frame, suspended by metal cables. This sculpture is ephemeral in that it is a work that takes place over time; the wheat grass sprouts, grows and decays, creating an evolving landscape suspended in an otherwise barren and industrial space (Roussel 2017).


While I enjoy environmental art and the symbolic use of grass, I don’t find this image to be as striking as her other installation, Lives of Grass.



Lives of Grass (2012)

While the Lives of Grass installation has a similar approach of living seeds growing and decaying over time, I feel like the fact that the grasses growing from human forms makes this work instantly more relateable. We, as humans, always recognize ourselves, even when our forms are simplified or otherwise abstracted. It seems that Roussel intended for that poignant relateability with her work, as this series focuses on a cycle of renewal with references to the Egyptian god Osiris (Roussel 2012).

A human’s connection to nature is very present through food cycles (Sekoff), illustrated by the wheat growing out of the sculptures. The food we ingest becomes a component of ourselves; it helps create our appearance as much as it fuels our bodies and gives us energy. Roussel has us confront that connection through the living grass human forms, which all seem to be deliberately placed in prone or otherwise helpless poses.



Michael Grab is a land or environmental artist, whose work focuses on the photography of balanced stacks of rocks within nature. He calls his work “gravity glue,” as gravity is the only glue that holds the balanced rocks together (Grab). These channel Andy Goldsworthy to me a little bit, but with a finer attention to the photography of the subject. As I teach myself photography, I find that I have a special appreciation for Michael Grab’s photographic technique and compositions a little bit moreso than the actual subjects represented. Without carefully considered compositions, I don’t think that these images of balanced rocks would be nearly as striking as they are.



Star Dial, 07 February 2016 (Kaplankaya, Turkey)

As I perused this artist’s gallery, this image immediately jumped out at me for both the formal elements of his composition as well as the photographic technique. The form of the arch at first glance is very similar, but at a closer look, it’s not that simple. I like that the keystone (stone in the center of the arch which holds it together) is deliberately longer, as that long, straight stone creates a focal point in the off-centered composition. I just love the negative space created by the arch and keystone!



Breathe, 08 September 2016 (Istria, Croatia)

I enjoy this image for a variety of reasons: the different sizes and shapes of rocks used, the time of day the photograph was taken, and the photographic technique itself. Michael Grab once again demonstrates the power of composition in creating a striking image; his image is divided fairly evenly into horizontal thirds and the stack of rocks holds the primary focus just a little bit off center in the vertical halves of the frame. The shapes of the rocks play off of each other in contrast of shapes; some of them are long, some round, large and small. Within the rocks are small negative spaces through which the background can be seen. Finally, the blurry sun setting over the horizon with all that bokeh from the low lens aperture is a definite photography preference of mine.





I particularly enjoyed this assignment, as I feel like for much of the semester I have been discussing artists whose work I am already quite familiar with. This time, I got to talk about an artist I know well, but discover two new artists who are working around the world today. I am also inspired to go create and photograph some of my own ephemeral works down on the Homer Spit!


Works Cited

“About — Gravity Glue”. Gravity Glue. N.p., 2017. Web. 16 Apr. 2017.
“Andy Goldsworthy Digital Catalogue: Photography”. Goldsworthy.cc.gla.ac.uk. N.p., 2017. Web. 16 Apr. 2017.
“Awesome Grass Sculptures Of Bodies”. The Huffington Post. N.p., 2017. Web. 16 Apr. 2017.
“Mathilde Roussel – Pangée”. Mathilderoussel.com. N.p., 2017. Web. 16 Apr. 2017.
“Sculptor Turns Rain, Ice And Trees Into ‘Ephemeral Works'”. NPR.org. N.p., 2017. Web. 16 Apr. 2017.



Early Modernism: Spanish Civil War

The era that our coursework defines as “Early Modernism” is a tumultuous era, which includes the horrors of World War I, rejection of past traditions, disillusionment in reality itself, the desperation of the Great Depression and the conflicts that lead up to World War II. I had a difficult time settling on a theme for this assignment since there is so much to draw from, but felt that the artwork that was created in reaction to the Spanish Civil War is an influence of World War I and the rise of facism in Europe was a poignant topic in the context of art history.

The Spanish Civil War was a horrifying, bloody conflict that took place between 1936-1939. When the Spanish monarchy was overthrown in 1931, a republic government was established that held regular elections. General Francisco Franco opposed this new government with his nationalist political faction called the Falanges, which were largely aristocratic. General Franco, with the aid of Nazi Germany and Facist Italy, led a coup which began the Spanish Civil War. This coup left the Nationalists and Republicans fighting over control of Spain. The timeline, political ideologies and warfare tactics of the Spanish Civil War can be read in further detail here at Britannica.com.

There are several pieces of artwork that are direct statements about the Spanish Civil War that I’ve selected for us to examine. My fondness for Spanish artists comes from my trip to Barcelona, Spain, which was a major site of the Republic of Spain’s resistance against the Nationalists.

I also feel strongly that these paintings give us an intense visual response to world events that hadn’t been seen before in art history, and stick with us because they shocked the world into confronting war in a visual way that wasn’t journalism. In the era following World War I, we deviate dramatically from the idealized and heroic history and Biblical paintings of the Renaissance, Neoclassical and Romantic eras. The works of Picasso, Dali and Miro bring us up close and uncomfortably personal with war being, simply, hell.


f05cd2c978ed5176b84661861f1dd7c351388370Guernica (1936), Picasso, Paris

Guernica is not just a painting: it is a cry of anguish and outrage of war crimes. Picasso, who was Spanish, was living in Paris at the time, was commissioned by the Republic government of Spain to contribute a painting for their pavilion in the 1937 World Fair. Although the theme of the fair was celebration of modern technology, Picasso’s painting was an overt political statement against the bombing of the Basque village of Guernica on April 27, 1937.

The village of Guernica was heavily bombed by Nazi German planes and fleeing civilians were gunned down by fighter pilots acting in concert with General Franco. Guernica held no strategic military value other than being the site of a training exercise for the horrifying weapons of modern warfare first seen in World War I.

Picasso was sympathetic to the Republican government and was distraught when the news of Guernica’s destruction reached Paris. He finished the painting (which is massive in size) in less than a month and delivered it to the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 World Fair (Robinson). Attendees expected to see the usual celebration of technology, but instead were shocked into confronting the facist brutalities of the Spanish War by Picasso’s visual memorial of Guernica.

It is said that when Paris was occupied by Nazi Germany in the 1940’s, a Nazi officer questioned Picasso about a photograph of Guernica and asked him if he painted it. Picasso replied, “No, you did,” (Robinson). Picasso refused for Guernica to be returned to Spain until it had returned to full democratic liberty; the painting was finally returned to Picasso’s homeland in 1981.

This painting is enormous, chaotic and uncomfortable for me to look at. The incomplete forms of humans and animals in agony stand out against that dark background. Picasso forces you to deal with the subject at hand. While I don’t have a great appreciation of the aesthetics of Cubist art movement, I appreciate this painting as an extremely important part of art and human history. The overt anti-war and anti-facist messages are ones that I feel are (unfortunately) still relevant in 2017.


Soft Construction With Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War) (1936), Salvador Dali, Spain

Salvador Dali is one of the most well-known paintings of the Surrealist movement. Everyone is probably familiar with the melting clocks and drawer figures, but they may not be exactly familiar with Dali’s close connection with the Spanish Civil War.

Soft Construction With Boiled Beans is also called Premonition of Civil War because Dali painted it approximately six months before the Spanish Civil War began. Surrealist artwork often embraces the distortion and desecration of the human body, and this painting is grotesque, for lack of a better word. Gnarled hands and decaying feet look like they are held in rigor mortis, which contrasts the supple breast form or the limp phallic form (which is totally a nod to Sigmund Freud) (Philadelphia Museum of Art).

This grotesquely fascinating foray into the human mind was painted by Dali as he lived in Spain while tensions between the Nationalist and Republican governments were getting stronger and stronger. The figure in the painting represents Spain tearing itself apart as both the victim and the aggressor (Philadelphia Museum of Art). It is rigid, painful, powerful, disgusting and fascinating all at once.

In typical Salvador Dali fashion, the beans in this painting seem to be terribly out of place. It is speculated that the beans in this painting are included from an ancient Catalan custom of offering beans to the gods. Dali often titled his paintings with objects included in them that were difficult to find (Spanish-Art.org). In this case, beans.

Soft Construction With Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War) is seen as an anti-war visual work near or at the same level as Pablo Picasso’s Guernica.

Still Life With Old Shoe (1937), Joan Miro, Paris

Joan Miro was another artist in the years between World War I and World War II that had a direct visual response to the horrors of war. Miro made frequent trips to Paris for several weeks at a time, but at the eruption of civil war in Spain, he realized that his stay in Paris would be an extended one. Nostalgic for home and exceedingly poor in a time of turmoil, he arranged an apple with a fork, a bottle of gin, a loaf of bread and an old shoe and set out to push painting to its limits while confronting his own reaction to the Spanish Civil War.

“We are living through a terrible drama, everything in Spain is terrifying in a way that you could never imagine,” Miro wrote before beginning on the painting (Daniel). Living in exile, Miro completed this painting of juxtapositions: bright neon colors that are enveloped and marred by ugly spots of black that seem heavy and even a little frightening. Through this painting, Miro said that this piece was, “Realism that is far from photographic… Profound and fascinating reality” (Daniel).

Miro actively sided with the Republicans, and contributed artwork to the 1937 World Fair. His mural, The Reaper, was shown in the same pavilion that Picasso’s Guernica and Alexander Calder’s Mercury Fountain were. Later in life, Miro considered Still Life With Old Boot to be his Guernica.

Works Cited
Robinson, L. (no date) Khan academy. Available at: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-1010/early-abstraction/cubism/a/picasso-guernica (Accessed: 17 February 2017).
Art, Philadelphia Museum of (no date) Explore the collections. Available at: http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/51315.html (Accessed: 17 February 2017)
Spanish masterworks: Salvador Dalí: Construcción blanda con judías hervidas (1936) (2011) Available at: http://www.spanish-art.org/spanish-painting-contruccion-blanda-con-judias-hervidas.html (Accessed: 17 February 2017).
Daniel, M. (2011) Miró and the catastrophe of the Spanish civil war. Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/blogs/miro-and-catastrophe-spanish-civil-war (Accessed: 17 February 2017).

Romantic Era: Art Nouveau & Impressionism

I’ll admit that I’ve been working through the course material  in anticipation of getting to the Romantic and Modern era assignments, because this is the era in which my favorite Western art was made!
Art Nouveau is a movement that is considered a “total art style,” since the highly stylized shapes of nature were prevalent in everything from prints, paintings, architecture, sculpture and jewelry. It was popular from the 1880’s until World War I, and advocated nature as the primary source of inspiration. Art nouveau artists were informed by anatomical and botanical illustrations and photography, which correspond to the academic and scientific discoveries of the era. They were also influenced by Japanese woodblock prints, which began to circulate after Japan ended their isolationist policies. The unfolding curves and lines are sometimes understood as a metaphor for freedom and release from the weight of artistic tradition of the past (Gontar 2006).
I’m going to analyze one of my favorite Mucha prints, The Seasons: Summer (1896) and the building called Casa Milá, constructed by Antoni Gaudi between 1906-1912. As a teenager, I’d always loved the work of Alphonse Mucha, but art nouveau found a true place in my heart when I went to Barcelona, Spain in 2004. We had the fortune of going to a castle that was once owned Salvador Dali, which had numerous art nouveau forms. I distinctly remember a bust sculpture of a woman with flowing Mucha-like hair and goldleaf flowers in her hair. There were also displays of combs and hand mirrors with curving nouveau plants on them. Heaven!
Impressionism is a style of artwork I have had a hard time relating to or enjoying. Strictly landscape paintings have never been a keen interest of mine. The loose application of paint and abstracted yet still recognizable subjects are not a style I personally enjoy. I find the majority of Impressionist paintings to be quite bland; it’s art that I often see in waiting rooms and areas that needed something to hang on their walls, but wanted it to be mellow and match their seating arrangements.


Art Nouveau

The Seasons: Summer (1896), Alphonse Mucha, Paris

For those who read my first blog post, Alphonse Mucha is one of my absolute favorite artists! His catalog of work is prolific, ranging from stylized lithographs and posters, grand paintings and even jewelry. I’ve always been drawn to Mucha’s lithographs. Many of his works I find most captivating are done in series, such as The Seasons.
Summer reminds me of lazy summer nights in Alaska, when the sun just barely skirts above the horizon all night. The sky is still blue, but has bright gold colors as well. I see this in Mucha’s delicate transition in the background of a blue sky, turning gold, and then becoming water where the reflection of the gold sky and the shadow of the woman’s feet can be seen.
A hallmark of Mucha’s style and the art nouveau movement is flowing, organic forms. Look at how none of the lines, whole bold, are never actually straight. The woman’s hair drapes in identifiable sections whose lines blend together, and it becomes entangled with the foliage of the branch she is leaning on.
Heavy line quality, curving forms and delicate color transtions create overall harmonious compositions that have heavily influenced my own artwork.



espai-modernista_04_0Casa Milá (1906-1912), Antoni Gaudi, Barcelona

I never gave architecture all that much thought until I actually went to Spain. While Park Güell was an astounding experience and the Segrada Familia perhaps his most well-known work, Casa Milá holds up in my memory a bit better. I was instantly struck by the green color of the windows and the ceiling leading up the stairs that looked like patina on old copper.
The lines in Gaudi’s buildings follow the conventions of art noveau; to be informed by nature, organic and flowing. I don’t think that there is a straight line in a Gaudi building. Even the walls have a gentle curve to them. As I mentioned before, art nouveau is a total art style. Every detail is brought to an elegant and decorative level. Functional things are made beautiful, if only just to be aesthetically pleasing. Even the ventilation stacks atop the building are sculpted to look like abstracted soldiers in armor. I sat on the roof of this building for hours and drew all of the different details that I could find.
Antoni Gaudi’s work within the art nouveau movement is closely associated with the Modernista movement in Barcelona.


Water Lilies (1919), Claude Monet, Paris

Monet is one of the most well-known Impressionist paintings out there, or maybe just one of the most well-known painters out there. I see prints of his prolific works just about everywhere, and they just don’t really do it for me. It’s a technical thing as well as an aesthetic thing for me.
Impressionists sought to capture fleeting moments and how light falls on subjects or scenery within those moments. Specifically, they capture the effects of light and shadows with vivid colors, rather than shades of black or gray. Conservative art critics of the age called the sketchy works “impressions,” or unfinished. Since the collective of artists making these radically different paintings were sticking it to the more traditional academic painting of the day, the “impressions” stuck to give them a name to identify their movement (Samu 2004).
My tastes, as we have seen in this and other blog posts, tend more toward the graphic. I like tight lines and defined spaces with subjects in them. Monet’s impressionist work has loose brush work applied in layers that have thicker application, but are still loose. The space in Monet’s water lillies isn’t all that well defined, save for the lillies themselves painted on a very minimal angle that suggests the surface plane of water.
I guess I just have a really hard time with paintings that are just intentionally rough, if even a bit sloppy compared to what I prefer.


Woman Standing Holding a Fan (1878-70), Mary Cassatt, Paris

As the work of Cassatt, Renoir and Degas show, impressionists weren’t entirely about loosely painted landscapes. They also included loosely painted people! The Impressionist paintings that focus on people interest me a little bit more than the landscapes, but not by much.
I chose Woman Standing Holding a Fan because there are parts of this painting that I do and do not enjoy. The loose and even nondescript way that the woman’s face, hands and fan are rendered bother me. It’s like a painting is purposefully unfinished. I am, however, drawn to the defined shapes of contrasting colors in the background, which seem to denote the corner of a room (this painting has a space). Furthermore, I’m drawn to the negative space created by the woman reaching down to touch her dress, which brings my attention to the blue shape once again.
While I can appreciate that Impressionism helped lead us toward abstract and expressionist art, it’s just not quite for me.



Works Cited
Samu, M. (2004) Impressionism: Art and modernity | essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of art history | the metropolitan museum of art. Available at: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/imml/hd_imml.htm (Accessed: 10 February 2017).
Gontar, C. (2006) Art nouveau | essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of art history | the metropolitan museum of art. Available at: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/artn/hd_artn.htm (Accessed: 10 February 2017)
Foundation, M. (no date) The seasons (series) – browse works – gallery. Available at: http://www.muchafoundation.org/gallery/browse-works/object/80 (Accessed: 10 February 2017).
Pedrera, F.C.-L. (no date) A ‘Catalan Modernisme’ space. Available at: https://www.lapedrera.com/en/catalan-modernisme-space (Accessed: 10 February 2017).

Morality and Virtue in Neoclassical Visual Arts

The somber, stoic and virtuous paintings of the Neoclassical movement are a direct counter-movement to the pastel opulence and frivolity of the Rococo period that directly preceded it. While Rococo artwork favored the Rubeniste style of flushed cheeks and fuller figures doing nothing in the most beautiful way possible, the Neoclassical, more Poussinistes style, works that followed used somber colors, linear and stable compositions and they had very specific moralistic views.

Exemplum virtuitus, the model of virtue, took many forms in Neoclassical works. These works are related directly to the Enlightenment era and political movements that rejected aristocratic hedonism and frivolity, represented by Rococo art. Resurgence in the study of humanism and the sciences sparked and further study of classical antiquities. Violent rejection of the aristocracy gave way moralistic and virtuous paintings that took the form of Biblical stories, Greek and Roman myths and dramatic paintings of heroes of the American and French wars of the 1700’s.

In this post, we will analyze the virtues of motherhood, noble self-sacrifice and triumph over adversity.

Cornelia Presenting Her Children as Her Treasures (1785), Angelica Kaufmann

This Neoclassical work highlights the renewed interest in stories of classical antiquity, spurred by the discovery of ancient Roman ruins such as Pompeii. It is worth noting that Kaufmann traveled there personally. In this painting, the story of Cornelia is of the ancient Roman leaders Tiberius and Gaius Graccus. The brothers Gracchi were politicians that sought social reform and were seen as friends to the general Roman citizen. Sound familiar to the American and French revolutions?

The Brothers Gracchi were credited with receiving their foundation in ethics from their mother, Cornelia. When Cornelia is asked by another person what she considers her treasures, she gestures to her children instead of jewelry or other material possessions. . This painting’s virtuous message is that the truest and most valuable treasure of a woman is her children (Martin). For me, this seems like an intentional jab at the opulence of the ruling aristocrats of the time.



The Death of General Wolfe (1770), Benjamin West

Benjamin West’s painting The Death of General Wolfe thrust history painting into a new form. Rather than painting Biblical scenes, Greek or Roman stories, he painted an event that had happened a mere seven years prior. Major-General James Wolfe was mortally wounded on the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec in the Seven Years’ War (also known as the French and Indian War). West’s patron, Archbishop Drummond, urged him to paint the figures in togas to emphasize the timeless heroism of the Major-General (Zygmont).

Despite West’s insistence upon using accurate military uniforms instead of togas in the name of “truth,” this painting is highly idealized in terms of the virtue of heroic self-sacrifice. Wolfe is arranged in the composition in a way that echoes the poses that we see Christ in Renaissance and Baroque artworks. This deliberate visual association of Christ, who died innocent, pure and for a worthwhile cause brings Wolfe to be viewed as a British martyr rather than a simple war hero (Zygmont).

The Death of General Wolfe should be noted as a painting that gave way to a reimagining of traditional history paintings to “contemporary” history paintings of relatively recent events.



Watson and the Shark (1778), John Singleton Copley

Watson and the Shark deviates from the stories of antiquities and war heroism to the narrative of the merchant class and what would be deemed interesting to them. When Copely was working in London, a merchant named Brook Watson commissioned him to paint a scene from his youth.


Watson, while swimming in the Havana harbor, was attacked by a shark and lost part of his leg. He sought to impart the symbolism of his triumph over adversity, as he became a notable politician and later on a baronet after leaving his career as a mere merchant. He also  hoped his commissioned painting would provide a “most usefull Leson to Youth” (Smithsonian). This lesson hung over Christ’s Hospital after Watson bequeathed it to the boys school upon his death (National Gallery of Art).

I feel like this work takes on many different meanings beyond that of what Watson said of his intended lesson. Heroism and good deeds were enshrined as utmost virtues in the Neoclassical era, and the shipmates staging to valiantly rescue Watson certainly show that.


All in all, I am not a huge fan of Neoclassical works. Although I can appreciate their contribution to history, I don’t find much enjoyment in the somber color palettes or the layers of both overt and obscure symbolism. It just feels way too contrived and arranged and analyzed to the point where it becomes boring to me. I much rather prefer the lighter aesthetic styles of Rococo visual art and architecture.


Works Cited
Martin, D. (no date) Khan academy. Available at: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/monarchy-enlightenment/neo-classicism/a/kauffmann-cornelia-presenting-her-children-as-her-treasures (Accessed: 3 February 2017).
Zygmont, B. (no date) Khan academy. Available at: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-americas/british-colonies/colonial-period/a/benjamin-wests-the-death-of-general-wolfe (Accessed: 3 February 2017).
Smithsonian Education Spotlight biography: Artists (no date) Available at: http://www.smithsonianeducation.org/spotlight/artists1.html (Accessed: 4 February 2017).
Art, N.G. of and Washington (2008) Copley’s Watson & the shark: STORY1. Available at: http://www.nga.gov/feature/watson/story1.shtm (Accessed: 4 February 2017).

Baroque: Artemisia Gentileschi

Artemisia Gentileschi is one of my favorite artists, and I have been waiting for the Baroque section in this class so that I could examine her work. Gentileschi is widely known as one of the most progressive painters of her generation, although during her life she was viewed merely as a curiosity. Her work is heavily influenced by the work of Caravaggio, as her father Orazio Gentileschi was celebrated follower of Caravaggio himself (Gunnell, 1993). Much of her early work was attributed to her father, because it was assumed that a seventeen-year-old girl could not create such realistic images as seen in her work Susannah and the Elders.

Gentileschi’s life was beset by trauma at a young age and difficulty in the years that followed, and it is recognized that being raped in her young adulthood by a painter in her father’s studio shaped the subject matter of her most famous works. They are uncomfortable, brutal, violent, and often show powerful Biblical heroines. Gentileschi’s talents earned her the patronage of the Medici family in Florence, and admission into the Florentine Academy of Fine Arts (Brooklyn Museum). The retelling of Biblical scenes from a woman’s perspective gives a unique twist on the Counter-Reformation efforts from the Council of Trent, which decreed that religious stories must have clarity, be realistic and convey intense emotion to inspire believers.

While the obvious choice for an Artemisia Gentileschi analysis would be Judith Beheading Holofernes (which is an amazing work), I have chosen The Annunciation for the purpose of contrasting Baroque technique and composition to that of the Renaissance masters.


The Annunciation (1630), Artemisia Gentileschi

The Annunciation is an iconic scene from Biblical stories, in which the angel Gabriel appears to Mary, telling her that she will be the mother of Christ. This story was painted over and over again in antiquity, but the way that Baroque painters captured the story always captivates my interest in turn.

The hallmarks of Baroque-era paintings are tenebrism, which is the extreme contrast of light and dark values. This technique and composition choice forces the subjects foreground of the image for a direct focus, where the hyper-realistic rendering of the painting feels almost as if you can touch it. Note the extreme realism in the folds on Gabriel’s sleeve; I can almost feel the soft texture of the fabric. The intense dark values in the background of the image only serve to make the foreground scene even more dramatic. This treatment of light gives Baroque art the theatrical quality that we attribute to the era.

Another composition trait of Baroque art is diagonal lines. There are a few in Gentileschi’s The Annunciation, some actual and some inferred. Gabriel’s outstretched arms create a line from top to bottom of the space, leading the viewer’s eye from the heavenly part in the clouds down to the bottom part of the space, where his hand overlaps Mary’s space. Lines of sight are inferred: Gabriel and Mary are looking at each other, and the disembodied cherubs in the air are looking at Mary.


Cestello Anunciation (1489), Sandro Botticelli. The contrast of Renaissance master works, which we have so closely analyzed, is strong when put next to a Baroque painting! Botticelli sought realism with the humanist and classical ideas of the Renaissance, but note the overall harmony of this painting versus Gentileschi’s. The color palette is more muted, with little contrast in the values compared to Gentileschi. The expressions are calm, if even serene. While the foreground figures are rendered with particular care to make them look three-dimensional, but the transition of values is more subtle than a Baroque painting. The background is also fully rendered, giving us as much information as possible about the setting of the painting, not just the particular illuminated moment in time.

For those who are more interested in Gentileschi’s life and work and also interested in gender studies, Gentileschi was given a place setting at the installation The Dinner Party (1979) by Judy Chicago. Chicago arranged and decorated Gentileschi’s place setting drawing similarities between the artist’s subject matter.

Works Cited
Gunnell, B. (1993) WebCite query result. Available at: http://www.webcitation.org/6V9q1a7fJ (Accessed: 23 January 2017).
Chicago, J. (no date) Brooklyn museum: Artemisia Gentileschi. Available at: https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/dinner_party/place_settings/artemisia_gentileschi (Accessed: 23 January 2017).