The Return of the "Repressed": European Figural Developments after WWII

Karel Appel: Scream into Space, 1947

In the 1960s, an exhibition called the "Responsive Eye" included various forms of abstraction, ranging from the stained paintings of Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis to the more "objective" or post-painterly abstractions of artists such as Ellsworth Kelly and Kenneth Noland and including op art.  It did not include any figural art.  In contrast, the 1959 exhibition, "New Images of Man," curated by Peter Selz, was entirely devoted to figural art, both European and American. The European artists had begun to address the figure well before the 1959 date of this show; the Americans were more directly repsonding to the abstraction and absence of the figure associated with abstract expressionism.  With the exception of De Kooning, the American artists in the show were primarily Chicago and California artists. (Chicago and California will be covered in another unit.)  Although the issues facing these artists (European and American) were not the same, Selz claimed that the art in this show was united by an attitude toward life which he called "existential essentialism."

Some characteristics of the art in this show

Some works and artists included in the "New Images of Man"

Nathan Oliveira: Standing Man with Stick, 1959 (California) H.C. Westermann: Memorial to the Idea of Man if He was an Idea, 1958 (Chicago) Richard Diebenkorn: Woman at a Window, 1957 (California)
Giacometti: The Chariot, 1950 (Swiss) Giacometti: The Artist's Mother, 1950 Francis Bacon: Study after Velasquez's Portrait of Pope Innocence X, 1953 (oil on linen) (British)

Existential essentialism:
Essentialism in this phrase refers to the unchanging essence of human nature, and in particular, to the inevitability of death and endings in life.  Existentialism refers to the unique ways in which every person faces this fate.  When Harold Rosenberg talked about existentialism and the abstract expressionists, he was referring to a focus on starting over in the painting as a metaphor for starting over in life, on facing each decision as something new.  The idea of "existential essentialism" does not share this emphasis on the idea of always starting over.  Instead, it focuses on the subjectivity of human beings and the sense that in the end, people are not in control of their destiny.  It is a less optimistic position than the abstract expressionist goal of remaking the world in painting.
With respect to the art work which Selz associated with this position: these were not artists who were united by any sense of sharing a movement or style.  If anything united them, it was the commitment to finding this "new image" of mankind - retaining the human figure in their art work but a human figure which was not the descriptive representation of a person.  Much as the abstract expressionists did, they wanted to put the psychological qualities of the world in which they lived into the painting, but not in a personalized or recognizable way.  It is in this sense that the paintings are "psychologized" - the paintings are communicative and disturbing through the treatment of materials, the choice of materials, and their "non-descriptive" representations of the human figure.

JEAN DUBUFFET: The Inconstancy of the Object

examples from the collection of Dr. Prinzhorn:
 Peter Meyer, The Destruction of Jerusalem work by Johan Knopf

Some of the guiding principles of Dubuffet’s creative output are captured in these statements of his:
“I believe (and in this I am in agreement with reputedly primitive civilizations) that painting, which is more concrete than the written word, is the richest instrument we have for communicating and elaborating thoughts.”
“I have said that the part of the thought which interests me is not the moment when the thought is crystallized into a formal idea but the stages which precede that crystallization.”

Dubuffet: A View of Paris, The Life of Pleasure, 1944 Dubuffet: Childbirth, 1944
Hairy Dhotel with Yellow Teeth, 1947 Bertele with a Crawfish on his Sinus, 1946
Dubuffet: Corps de Dame: Bloody Landscape, 1950 Dubuffet: Will to Power, 1946

His earlier paintings are derived from daily or ordinary life events, rendered in a crudely childlike style and suggestive of the uncultivated person as well as of graffiti.  These paintings are characterized by a lack of perspective, distortion of forms, use of primary colors or conversely, the technique of scratching through a black surface to find something underneath.
We then begin to see his ongoing interest in the transformation of materials, such that textures in his paintings begin to become the painting, as figures seem to explode into the background field, even as the outline of the body remains in tact.  This tendency to maintain the body's boundaries is quite different from de Kooning's explosive bodies in which the background and body become inseparable.  Many of Dubuffet's works of this type use a paste-like ground for the painting, which he made from sand, earth, fixatives, and pigment.  Then he scratched into the surface to create the suggestion of drawing.  Much later this becomes an obsessive interest in the interlocking and repetitive forms which eventually grow into sculpture and outdoor environments.

Dubuffet: Highway Gardens, 1956 Dubuffet: Person of Butterfly Wings, 1953
Dubuffet: Tide of the Hourloupe, 1963

Francis Bacon

Bacon was also included in this show although he appears to have little in common with an artist like Dubuffet. He should be seen as part of a context which is similar to that of Karel Appel, an artist associated with the CoBrA group, artists from Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam, and generally strongly influenced by Dubuffet's attitude toward materials and children's art. What the CoBrA artists shared was a search for a union of order and disorder, of horror and its rejection, of the redirection of modernism away from the assertion of utopia and toward the recognition of horror. Appel was committed to the figure although not all of the CoBrA artists were. Unlike Appel, who quickly moved from painting to sculpture, Bacon remained entirely committed to a painterly tradition of art history. Unlike CoBrA, Bacon does not appear to have been influenced by a belief in the use of childhood "primitivism" as a model or inspiration. Bacon more deliberately turns to artists like Velazquez and Van Gogh, as well as movies by Russian filmmakers like Eisenstein. He captures images from all periods of art and uses them to make his own paintings, paintings which often are heavily eroticized and violent in terms of their subject matter but not in terms of an unspoken contract with an artistic tradition.  Bacon rejects abstraction because in his eyes, it communicates nothing but an aesthetic of the artist.  His dominant and consistent subject is the human face and body, but generally shown in a large, non-environment space: the suggestion of a room without the suggestion of space, or the illusion of a glass and tubular box which blurs our view of the often screaming head, the cry into the void.
Painting 1946 Head VI, 1949
Study for the Head of a Screaming Pope, 1952 Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe, 1963

Bacon may be the purest representative of the idea of "existential essentialism" because of his goal of expressing the inner reality of the human being.  He draws freely on references to art history, to photography, to film, using all of these as equal sources of knowledge about human nature, about the behaviors which people express toward one another, and using them as a type of image library which he feels free to adopt and derange.  In that sense, he is like some of the abstract expressionists--de Kooning, in particular, who may be the closest artist to him in terms of his painterly and philosophical goals.  But making that comparison does not help to explain the prevailing sense of Bacon's paintings of a human figure screaming into the void.  In this sense, Bacon seems very different from de Kooning.

Despite the many references which can be found in his paintings to other art, and despite some of the anguish his figures share with those of Picasso or Egon Schiele or Chaim Soutine, other artists who were committed to depicting extreme responses of the human body to psychological pain, those artists give us a more subjective and particular instance of human anguish than Bacon does.  Bacon couples the psychological sordidness of his figures with a cold, objective glance that perversely acts to eliminate the artist’s subjective presence from these paintings and replaces it with the sense that these are bodies which are so consumed by the existential battle between terror and will that they dispassionately or neutrally proclaim the indivisibility or inseparability of psychic terror from physical existence and they proclaim that this is not the condition of a select few but of the entire human race.

Triptych May-June, 1973

Ernst van Alphen, in his book on Bacon*, raises the question about narrative in Bacon’s paintings : Why do we think we see a narrative in Bacon’s paintings?  Most of them are triptychs, a format which almost immediately suggests temporal continuity and the development of a story; they have human figures in them, generally in an environment which suggests a space of some sort, so we imagine some interaction between the people in the paintings and the space containing them; and the shapeless forms suggest a cinematic type of movement which once again implies that something has been happening and is changing.  Yet, much of what Bacon does contradicts the existence of narrative.
If we begin with the issue of space: the figures are rendered in a coarse application of paint whereas the background is generally quite smooth and finished. The disparity of treatment works against reading the background as anything other than a field of color which generally locks the figure in place, either through the illusion of a cage or cell or through the bright colors which prevent recession.  Bacon’s use of the triptych also denies the sense of spatial continuity; unlike traditional triptychs, each panel is generally framed separately, resulting in the suggestion that these are three separate paintings, joined for formal reasons, rather than narrative.  Finally, the figures themselves never really assume an identity.  We are not given recognizable bodies or faces, and even when two or more figures are located in the space together, it is difficult to imagine that they are interacting, as opposed to sharing paint.

[*Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self.  Ernst van Alphen.  (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992).]

Triptych (detail), 1974 Study from the Human Body, 1987

Bacon has said that he was interested in the narrative as a process, the act of telling the story, rather than the narrative as product -– the completed story which has already been told.  The interesting complication is that with this statement, he seems to be aligning himself to the process orientation of abstract expressionism and the existential aspect defined by Rosenberg of remaking each work of art as an act of defining self.  But Bacon’s bodies seem particularly non-existential as they refuse to engage in any interaction with the viewer.  They are too incompletely rendered to be an “other” person; they are fragmented in a way that does not imply taking shape so much as losing identity and losing a sense of wholeness.  Alphen suggests that these bodies are the interior mass of sensations, and if they are inner human spaces, then perhaps Bacon’s decision to render the background in a hard, flat surface which contrasts with the figures is a decision which enhances the sense that we are not looking at a person but an interior.  This is a figure which is confined and isolated within its interiority; there is no exterior for us to engage.  As viewers, then, we are faced with a figure but the figure has no coherent structure to it.  The surrounding environment, which at first glance suggests a definable space, is no more real than the figure and the separation between them is tenuous.  If de Kooning’s women and environments become one through the disintegration of the female figure, Bacon’s figures and environment become one through the suggestion that the figure will absorb the space into itself.  But it can only do this by giving up its boundaries and losing its selfhood.  Alphen goes on to suggest that this loss of self is not, in the end, a frightening and despairing act because the loss of self implies a reconstruction of self.  Since Bacon does not want to represent the story as a finished object, he can only represent this frightening sense of losing definition as a body.  But if we follow Bacon’s logic, we can see the loss of boundaries as the beginning step in the creation of new ones.