Grosz, To Oskar Panizza, 1917-18 h Artists reacted in a variety of different ways to the traumatic experience of WWI. Many believed that the War had proven that the world was senseless and crazy, and that there was no hope left. A style of art called “Dada” was born out of this despair. The word Dada was chosen because of its meaninglessness. Dadaists wanted to be as nihilistic as possible, and their work is often extremely bleak. This was especially true in Germany where feelings of despair were mixed with shame as the ones who lost. This is a painting by a German who fought in the war but suffered a nervous breakdown. Upon his return he did everything he could to expose the hypocrisy of a society that would claim that war is noble and proper (Dulce et Decorum Est). This painting shows society in total collapse with buildings slanted at impossible angles and everything in flames. It is a depiction of a funeral, but there is nothing solemn about it. The priest and other mourners up front look grotesque and the dead man’s skeleton is sitting atop his own coffin swilling liquor.
Grosz, Fit for Active Service, 1918 Grosz made many drawings in addition to vivid paintings, and they are all bitterly satirical. Here an army doctor is shown examining a corpse and pronouncing him fit to return to the front. The generals in front look crude and savage.
Grosz, The Pillars of Society, 1926 h Here Grosz makes nasty fun of several types in contemporary German society. In the foreground is a student holding a pint of beer. His head is open on top and inside is a man on horseback – a reference to old and now totally discredited myths of the glory of war. His tie pin is a swaztika showing that he has learned nothing and is a follower of right wing politics. Behind him on the right is an academic (professor). His head is also open and in place of brains there is a stinking pile of shit. Behind him is a priest who looks as though he is in the advanced stages of alcoholism. Nobody escapes the wrath of this furious artist.
Beckmann, Night, 1919 Beckmann is another German artist whose work is very complex and cannot entirely be classified as Dada. However this painting, executed immediately after the war, shares the bitter sentiments of the movement. It shows a middle class family being horribly violated by a band of savage criminals. Violence as well as the total disruption of stable society were the legacies of the War to end all wars.
Arp, Squares Arranged According to the Laws of Chance, 1916-17 Arp is a Dada artist who employed a completely different visual strategy to express some similar ideas to the other artists just shown. He began with the attitude that in a world without meaning, how can you create art? In fact, he concluded, there is no possibility of art in such a world, therefore the only appropriate move by artists is to create “anti-art” – art that intentionally has no value. This was a way of reflecting the notion that many aspects of society (government, the military, the church) were believed to have no value left after leading society so astray into disastrous war. Arp simply ripped up two pieces of cheap paper, tossed them down and glued them in place. This is art with no content, no emotion, no beauty, no skill required, no time spent, and all in all no value of any kind.
Hausmann, The Spirit of our Time, 1921 This is another Dada work by a German artist that is trying to the idea of complete senselessness – a head with no thought. Random objects are affixed to a mannequin head.
Duchamp, Fountain, 1917 Marcel Duchamp was a Frenchman who spent most of his life in New York. From the dates of this and the next work you can see that he was a little ahead of his time in pioneering the Dada movement. He had a radical new idea which was to simply designate something in the world that already existed and just call it art. Here he chose a urinal, turned it upside down, and signed it with a fake name. These kinds of works are called “readymades” for obvious reasons. Whereas Dadaists in Europe tended to be deeply bitter, Duchamp was merely ironic and indifferent. Why bother putting a lot of effort into making something new? Hasn’t it all been done before? Why add to the physical clutter of the world? Better, and easier, to simply use something that’s already made. This “technique” says a lot about the nature of art. Is it all in the idea? After all it certainly is an original idea even if the thing itself completely lacks originality. Is it in the context? In a gallery up on a pedestal it demands to be accepted as art, but in a janitor’s closet it would not retain that identity.
Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel, 1913 This is another of Duchamp’s famous (or infamous) readymades. His sister found it in his attic sometime after it had been on view and, assuming it was a piece of trash, threw it away. The version currently owned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York is a “copy after the lost original”. Notice anything ironic there?
Malevich, White on White, 1918 And now for something completely different. While Dada expresses despair and nihilism, another group of artists tried to articulate a new visual way into the future. This was optimism born out of desperation. The belief was that everyone else had failed society, therefore we artists must step up and lead the way forward into a better, more orderly and utopian society. This Russian artist, in this extremely austere painting, tried to metaphorically wipe the slate clean. By eliminating almost everything from the visual field he creates a calm meditative space from which to begin again. This painting seeks to go back to some pure origin of art to set the stage for a new, more visionary way forward.
Mondrian, Gray Tree, 1911 Mondrian was a Dutch artist who was very dedicated to nature. But he wasn’t interested in transient effects, like the Impressionists were. He wanted to get at some kind of pure essence of nature through a process of purification. This painting shows a tree, but he is progressively reducing the visual elements to only what it essential.
Mondrian, Pier and Ocean, 1915 Here you can see that all of nature has been reduced to simply black and white and horizontal and vertical lines. What are the universal truths of the natural world, he asked? If we can reveal those underlying truths perhaps we can all live together in harmony.
Mondrian, Composition with Red, Yellow, Blue, and Black, 1921 By 1921 Mondrian had settled on what would become his formula of primary colors, black and white, and vertical and horizontal lines. From these components the entire visual/natural world can be constructed. It is as if he believed himself a prophet who discovered a hidden ultimate truth and was duty-bound to enlighten the rest of us. The ultimate goal was social harmony among all people. This style is all about order, clarity, the universality of basic geometry, etc.
Kandinsky, Composition VIII, 1923 Remember what Kandinsky was doing in 1913 (see next slide) during his Expressionist period? Look at how his style changes after the war. All of the emotional drama of free colors and brush strokes evolves into crisp geometric shapes drawn with drafting tools. The power of abstract geometry as a regenerative language that would wipe away all of the chaos and confusion of the preceding years was very powerful at this time.