Full-blooded art, antiseptic gallery

Issue 

Warhol to Picasso: Fourteen Modern Artists
Art Gallery of Western Australia
Until December 3

This exhibition brings together 120 of some of the 20th century’s most important art works that catalogue some critical attempts to break through the bourgeois encirclement of human existence and point towards liberation.

Using Spanish artist Pablo Picasso and American Andy Warhol as the convenient gateposts, it allows us to read the rise and fall of the century’s revolutionary sentiment.

In the early 20th century, Paris became the meeting place of diverse political and cultural influences that exploded into the Cubist art school. The modernist cultural revolution the Cubists ignited, though amplified and tamed by the commercial art industry, reverberates to this day.

It is both the amplification and the taming, the faux respect, that we see in this exhibition.

The late-19th century French occupation of west Africa was particularly violent and sparked an anti-war movement. Visually, African art objects brought back to the metropolis from the newly acquired colonies forced artists, including Pablo Picasso, to “re-see” the world.

Politically, the working class was recovering its morale after the defeat of the 1871 Paris Commune and France was suffused with anarchist and Marxist ideas. Bringing African influences into art was a political as well as an aesthetic choice.

Cubists attempted to both incorporate the pre-capitalist, unalientated freedom of African art with the liberty beckoning via machine age technology and class struggle. Their work sparked waves of fervent attempts by 20th century artists to grapple with the tumultuous century.

Many of these artists, including Picasso and Fernand Leger, were Communists. Others like Duchamp and Brancusi were more psychoanalytical or spiritualist. All breathed the spirit of the times and expressed it.

Pushing everything forward was the sense that the modern industrial age was making possible a new world ― in short, all that was solid was being thrown in the air.

The Balkan Wars, followed by World War I and then the Russian revolution, fractured the old, frozen river of European history, redrawing the continental map at the same time that cinema made frozen images move.

The 19th century Western imperialist invasions of China and forced opening of Japan had brought Japanese and Chinese art to European salons. Artists of that time, faced with the new medium of photography, attempted to transcend capitalist alienation by emulating Chinese and Japanese zen painters and capture the fleeting impression of the moment on canvas.

Unlike those Impressionists, Cubists and their followers confronted alienation by shattering the normal way of perceiving objects, flattening out perspective and abstracting the image. A good example is Picasso’s 1909 “Still Life with Liqueur Bottle”, which, via the mechanism of Cubism does not look like a bottle of anything and is anything but still.

After World War II, added to the cinema, industrial production and social organisation of capitalism there was a new element: advertising and mass consumerism. A manifestation of protest arose in the heartland of imperialism, the United States of America, through the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock.

Like the Beats, he wanted to spontaneously break through to a sense of personal freedom by identification with black bebop jazz culture and bohemianism (which effectively translated into heavy drinking). He famously put his canvases on the ground and dripped paint on them in a frenzy of sensorial exploration.

Other artists, like Louise Bourgeois, took this new freedom of expression into an exploration of women’s oppression. Her “Sainte Sebastienne”, in which the martyred saint is depicted as a headless woman, speaks volumes about women’s social position.

The Afro-American artist Romare Bearden threw himself into the 1960s liberation movement using collage as his medium. In “The Dove”(1964), he shows the vitality of Pittsburgh ghetto street life.

Yet no face in the crowd makes eye contact with the viewer, indicating the hidden feelings of anger, while the white dove, representing perhaps the Holy Spirit of liberation, observes all.

While Bearden was dedicating himself to social emancipation and Louise Bourgeois protested female oppression, Andy Warhol was becoming rich by pandering to consumerism. Instead of trying to break from consumerism, Warhol was fascinated by it.

Whereas earlier artists had seen machine production as a means of human liberation, Warhol simply reproduced it as art. This appeared to be satire, such as a wall of enlarged Campbell’s soup labels mocking the conformism of the age.

Famous for his sage-like reluctance to explain his work, Warhol allowed the art industry to generate its own meanings, projecting the era’s radicalism onto him. In fact, Warhol was not a critic of capitalism, his most radical statement was to call on people to vote for the Democrat George McGovern as opposed to Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential elections.

As the money flowed in, Warhol, far from confronting alienation, became part of the problem, not part of the solution. His achievement was to passively observe the times ― and to die before his shallowness was exposed.

Visitors to this exhibition, when listening to the free audio tour, reading the notes beside each art piece and browsing the catalogue will find themselves safely shielded from any of the social and political context that generated the works.

Completely innocent of history and struggle, the works piously float above society as abstract and meaningless as navel fluff.

It is as if the spirit of the times has been butchered and hung out for display with all the blood antiseptically sponged away. Ironically, the bourgeoisie buries art in full view while profiting from it.

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