Existentialism in Modern Art
Summary of Existentialism in Modern Art
The philosophy of Existentialism was an influential undercurrent in art that aimed to explore the role of sensory perception, particularly vision, in the thought processes. Existentialism stressed the special character of personal, subjective experience and it insisted on the freedom and autonomy of the individual. Jean-Paul Sartre was Existentialism's most prominent advocate in the post-war period, and the bohemian circles in which he moved while in Paris included many artists. In this way, figures such as Alberto Giacometti, Jean Dubuffet, Jean Fautrier and Wols became associated with Existentialist philosophy. It also had some impact in the United States, particularly through the writing of art critic Harold Rosenberg. The philosophy was often poorly understood, even by those who called themselves Existentialists. Nevertheless, it shaped discussion of themes such as trauma, anxiety, and alienation; ideas which were pervasive in post-war art.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- Existentialism first emerged in the late-19th century, in the writing of the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard who reacted against the systematic and rational character of Hegel's philosophy and instead insisted on the distinctiveness of personal experience. In the decades that followed, Existentialism grew into a philosophy that placed stress on individual ethics and on the authentic experience of selfhood, on freedom and choice.
- Existentialism's focus on individual experience made it a perfect tool with which to interpret much post-war abstract art. It proved particularly useful to discuss Art Informel, the highly expressive and individualistic abstract art that flourished in Europe after the late 1940s. Some of this work, by painters such as Dubuffet and Wols, addressed the uneasy co-existence of mind and body on which human beings rely, and Existentialism's interest in sensory perception offered a means to negotiate the sometimes difficult divide.
- Existentialism never enjoyed the same popularity among American artists that it did among Europeans. But it did enter the discussions of Abstract Expressionists, particularly through Harold Rosenberg's notion of "Action Painting," which understood the painter's creative process as an act of necessary self-assertion, an expression of freedom and authenticity.
- Existentialism also contributed to discussions of figurative art in the post-war period, shaping responses to the work of Alberto Giacometti and Francis Bacon in particular. This is symptomatic of the popularization of the philosophy, which came to be widely understood as the intellectual expression of anxiety about the fate of humanity in the atomic age.
Overview of Existentialism in Modern Art
Although the term "Existentialism" was coined by the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel in the 20th century, its roots reach far back; one can even find traces of it in the thought of the Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who argued that mankind was defined by universal qualities. Mankind's essence, in other words, is everywhere the same, and essence precedes his existence in the world, which is contingent on external factors such as history and environment. This theme later played an important role in Existentialism. The philosopher who is often referred to as the "father of Existentialism" is Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), who, like Kant, maintained the importance of the individual, and his or her duty to determine the meaning of life.
The Important Artists and Works of Existentialism in Modern Art
Philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty argued in "Cézanne's Doubt," an important and influential essay, that Cézanne's painting demonstrated art's interest in subjective perceptions and experiences – indeed the first level of those experiences, before the mind had time to process and reflect upon them. In this sense, Merleau-Ponty suggested, art is opposed to science, which is more interested in analyzing and rationalizing those experiences. Cézanne painted five versions of The Card Players, all towards the end of his life, and each of the pictures might serve as an opening on to themes of Existentialism and Phenomenology, not least because each of Cézanne's players is wholly self-involved, absorbed in his own game.
The wild and aggressive painting of the Paris-based German artist Wols is characteristic of the European abstract movement Art Informel. Indeed, when Wols arrived at the radically abstract style of his post-war work, many critics recognized it as new and significant. The critic Michel Tapie, who coined the term Informel, said Wols was "the catalyst of a lyrical, explosive, anti-geometrical and unformal non-figuration." The painter Georges Matthieu remarked that "After Wols, everything has to be done anew." And Jean-Paul Sartre claimed Wols for Existentialism, writing that his work was a visualization of our "universal horror of being-in-the-world," our fascination with the "otherness" of worldly phenomena. The Blue Phantom is a key example of the artist's emotional relationship and response to the canvas, and it exemplifies Existentialism's stress on subjective experience. Wols' life might also be taken as an emblem of the ethic of individual freedom that was also championed by Existentialists, since he led a wild life, fast and loose, with little regard for playing by the rules.
Many art historians and theorists consider Francis Bacon the quintessential Existentialist artist, and his 1953 Study suggests why. It is based on Diego Velazquez's 1650 portrait of Pope Innocent X, but the removal of the head, the addition of the cage-like bars, and the ways Bacon's figure sits behind a kind of screen of vertical brushstrokes all evoke the mood and themes of the post-war philosophy. The figure also seems on the verge of disappearance, as if his corporeal self is literally evaporating. Existentialism cautioned that the battle to retain our sense of self was a constant one, heroic and tragic, and it was urgently necessary if we were not to become little different than the objects that surround us.
Useful Resources on Existentialism in Modern Art
- Basic Writings of Existentialism
- Existentialism And Human Emotions
- Existentialism from Dostoevsky to SartreOur Pick
- Fear and Trembling
- Notes from the UndergroundOur Pick
- Heart of Darkness
- The Plague, The Fall, Exile and the Kingdom, and Selected EssaysOur Pick
- Invisible ManOur Pick
- Beyond Good and Evil
- Being And Nothingness: An Essay in Phenomenological Ontology
- The Ethics Of Ambiguity
- "Cézanne's Doubt" (1945)By Maurice Merleau-Ponty
- "Waiting for Godot" (1949)Our PickBy Samuel Beckett
- "On Language: Existential"Our PickBy William Safire / The New York Times / April 8, 2007
- "Slapstick Existentialism on Broadway"By Joan Marcus / More Intelligent Life / June 30, 2009
- "No Images of Man: On Nancy Spero"By Barry Schwabsky / The Nation / November 10, 2010