Art Categories

Art critics to "sort out" the tremendous amount of new artworks created Art historical categories.
A critic cannot sleep at night if he hasn't categorized his subjects, created slots for everything he is critiquing.
But seriously, categories are being invented to make some sense of the rapidly evolving art world and the boundaries of a category cannot keep a talented artist imprisoned.
Art within an artist is a living, evolving matter that cares little for the categories.
One of the best examples in my opinion is magnificent art of Gustave Klimt.
He has created beautiful painting that can be classified as Impressionistic for his use of color and brushstrokes, yet at the same time the illusion of three-dimensionality of figures is broken by the flat patterned clothes that almost merge with the background (similarity with art noveau in its use of line and graphic elements). Yet at the same time Klimt's creations are symbolic, they explore the matters of a human soul, the dark side of sexuality. Stunning example is his "Judith", where we see a woman sexually aroused from the fact that she has just severed Holofernes head. Not only Klimt depicted direct emotion on Judith's face, but he also used symbolic such as high chocker, which represents sexual arousal. * The face and the body are painted in a hazy, three-dimensional way, but tunic that Judith is wearing looks 2d and is adorned with decorative ornament, much like figures in Byzantium art.

*I took some of the facts from the book "Essential Klimt", by Laura Payne. Interesting reading and what is even more important-high-quality reproductions of Klimt's paintings.

19th century realistsI believe that a true artist expresses his/her own outlook on the world no matter what is the subject of the painting. Therefore realists' claims that a true artist must record life as it is seems a bit childish to me, because only the lens of a photo camera records things as they are (and even in photography it is up to the photographer to select framing, lighting, exposure etc. which create specific mood and tell a story, therefore, even here we deal with INTERPRETATION rather than real life).
Also I find it pretentious that realists appointed themselves judges of what should and should not be painted. In doing so they have set even more restrictions inside the art world than ever existed.

Artists of the late 19th Century believed the paintings employing techniques of "illusionism" as "traditional art.
In reaction against the traditional art they started to reject the very principles and subjects of painting that dominated art world since Renaissance. Three dimensional, realistic renderings with the employment of the scientific one-point and aerial perspective were referred to as "old" and therefore, uninteresting technique. Bold compositions where subjects are not centered or even fit fully within the canvas took over. The painting is no longer "a window" to another world.
Impressionists were after capturing the interplay of colors and mood that is created thru such an interaction; something that exists in the atmosphere and never been captured on canvas before.

Realists rejected historic events and mythology as "worthy" subjects for painting focusing on everyday events. But, maybe even unwillingly, they elevated those very "everyday "events to unprecedented before heights. If the reality of working the fields or the factory was coarse and quite unpleasant, the paintings of it are not! If a contemporary bourgeois would walk by such an "everyday" scene and dismiss it as "unworthy", he or she is not likely to dismiss a work of art as such.
Therein, I believe, lies paradox: realists strived to depict life as it is and instead they have captured the world where peasants and mill workers seem as important as any other member of the society!


In his early works Cezanne was exploring the dark side of the nature and its mysteries. The painting "Abduction" was painted in1867 is representational of this period.
The two central figures seem intertwined yet clearly balance each other with the repeating shapes and antagonistic colors. Already it is not merely an impression of brute force but elaboration on the theme of violence and an attempt to study what constitutes it. I like this work immensely because I can see a story development thru the composition and color choices. This piece makes me go back and look at it over and over. I cannot say the same about later Cezanne works as they became more rational and calculated.


I have read (Stefano Zuffi, "One thousand years of painting" that Paul Gaiguin's passion for painting caused him to abandon a secure job as a stockbroker and eventually leave his wife and five kids to their own devices. He despised the corrupt "civilized" world so much that when electricity was brought to Haiti, he abandoned it and moved to Marquesas Islands where he died.
In another source it is said that he was driven from Tahiti in 1901 by the populace tired of his sexual orgies, illegitimate children, alcohol and drugs and that his paintings and sculptures were thrown into the sea.
It appears that Gaugin struggled his whole life to promote his paintings as his only "legitimate" creations, casting aside his living offspring as not worthy. Not only he abandoned his wife and 5 children in France, he fled from his young lover Teha'amana (which he "took" when she was only thirteen years old) when the latter became pregnant. And the story was about to repeat itself over and over. He despised the corrupt aspects of the civilization and came to the South Seas for freedom…bringing the corruption with him. He is still remembered Polynesia for the propagation of syphilis.

It appears he was an individualist in the extreme valuing his own genius above all other manifestations of life.
I personally love Gaugin's paintings for the exuberant colors and energy they emanate but I cannot comprehend him as a person. Truly, nature has its mysterious ways.

Theme of alienation in the 20th century art.

Artists of the 20th century often addressed theme of alienation because the role of the individual in the society and the ways of interaction between the members of the society has changed during the industrialization. No longer a standing of the representative of a given class was stable, as slow and steady process of manual production gave way to fast-paced industrial one. Uncertainty and doubt in one's usefulness to this world often tormented people who all of a sudden found themselves to be swayed from the places their ancestors occupied for generations.
Germany, with its military ambitions and the hardships of a military defeat had suffered this uncertainty period even deeper than any other European country. This is why German expressionist art reaches unparalleled intensity when dealing with the state of mind of a modern person.
Erich Heckel was a member of Die Brucke group and he produced many wood cuts as well as paintings.
I think the work of his artist explores the theme of alienation more than any other theme. The figures on his works usually do not have the eye contact with a viewer, or anyone beyond the picture frame for that matter; they look introspective and tortured by doubt. Facial expressions are outlined if a few angular lines, which make them look more than a mask rather than real human face (influence of the African ritual masks, as the shape of the eyes looks very similar from painting to painting). The body language of the figures also creates the feeling of tension, as all the figures have their hands either clasped below the chin ("Portrait of a man, 1919), or clasped behind the head (The head of a young woman). Positioning of the hands tight against the body usually communicates fright and uncertainty, as opposed to "arms wide open", when a person is happy.

Every artist addresses a theme of alienation at one or another pint in his life, but 20th century artists seem to concentrate on it more often.
Matisse has also explored this theme in his "Conversation". We can see seated female figure, which is confined by the chair and the railing on the window; flat background traps her. A tall male figure stands above her; he does not even fit within the frame. So their conversation is no conversation at all as there are no points of contact and there is eternal silence.

Kandisky worked to liberate the color from the confines of object and he was successful in creating entire world of living "music in colors". Piet Mondrian went event further and attempted to free the art from even emotion. This, in his opinion would bring order to the society and with it, peace.
Piet Mondrians compositions make me feel confined! His grids are reminiscent of the bars on a jail window, and the fact that each square has different color only magnifies effect of isolation.
In my opinion, his works may be considered as important mathematic exploration, hardly an art form. An art piece is alive only when it speaks to the soul of an individual. Mondrian strived to create "Universal art", devoid of any ethnic characteristic so that it will speak to everyone. As a result, I do not think it really speaks to anyone because our personal and group experiences are what make us what we are: remove that and we are not humans anymore.
It his quest to bring order to the world he overlooked one simple fact-the entropy of the universe! Chaos only increases to counterbalance the inert state that order brings with it.
I definitely prefer Kandinsky's paintings-there's real passion in those bold colors and energetic brushstrokes. I can feel a story developing from looking at Kandisky's paintings; there are tears and joy, uncertainty at times and assurance of a better future. His compositions truly are "music in colors"; they leave a lasting impression of a time flow as opposed to Mondrian's pieces, which are but frozen.

Kandinsky and Mondrian
On the contrary, it is my belief that our society has too much structure and organization. The wars and suffering of the people in other countries are all part of a plan to eventually dominate the world, whether we like to admit it or not. Chaotic elements are but a reaction to the restructuring in the world.
I believe in balance of the elements in the Universe and it seems to me that when an artist consciously makes a choice to cast aside emotion as something destructive, he casts aside the essence of humanity. I can understand how Mondrian's creations can speak to other individuals, I only insist that the connection is not on emotional level and therefore is something rather of scientific achievement, not an art form.
The world structured after Mondrians ideas would be a devastated non-existence of robotic entities or a single field of combined consciousness completely devoid of anything that once was human.

Marcel Duchamp and Dadaists

The notion of seeing art in everyday objects is hardly new. Before humans learned to create elaborate works of art some individuals would pick up a stone or branch and see in those objects something else, maybe an animal they were about to hunt or a fish or anything else their imagination allowed for. Later they have learned to alter those "found objects" as to make them look more like something else and so on. It took humanity thousands of years to develop highly intellectual and spiritual world of art and masterpieces by the best artists were revered as something almost supernatural. It took mere 7 years for the Dadaists if not to destroy, but certainly defile the mystery of genuine works of art.
"In 1913 I had the happy idea to fasten a bicycle wheel to a kitchen stool and watch it turn." Says Duchamp on the subject of his "readymades". Certainly his ideas may have been seen by some as revolutionary, because it appears that 20th century art is more about being original (if not outright scandalous) than being aesthetically pleasing. Great artists such as Picasso found their true stile in recollection of the sheer joy of a child who creates not knowing the canons. But this return to the primitive perception of a world is hardly a "development" in a sense any educated person would perceive. What is next: the return to the caves and destruction of all the attributes of the civilization?
I guess the ability to see and enjoy art all around is an attribute of any true artist, even if he or she never held a paintbrush or a chisel. Duchamp has only made a lot of noise about this fact and for this I guess he deserves his place in the history of art. But anyone who blindly follows his ideas and does not nurture his or her talent and CREATE, but happily toys with found urinals instead is nothing but an ego centrist who values himself in art and not vise versa.

Salvador Dali and the Surrealists

I think that development of Surrealist movement was a reaction against Dada in a sense that artists have returned to the subjective art! And though Surrealist group advocated depicting uncensored, deepest desires and dreams, they lacked the courage to accept some of the creations of their prominent member Salvador Dali that led him to sever the ties to this group. Dali wrote: "The difference between me and Surrealists is that I am a Surrealist!"
My favorite painting by Dali is "One Second Before Awakening from a dream caused by the Flight of Bee around a Pomegranate", painted in 1944 during Dali's and his wife Gal stay in America.
I have read that Dali painted this masterpiece after Gala told him of her dream; therefore this painting exemplifies the theory of external stimulants of dreams by Freud.
I think I can understand this painting because some of the motifs portrayed are recurrent in my own dreams. Gala's naked body is floating in the air, relating to the sense of weightlessness that often is experienced in a dream, but it is not far from the surface of a rock, suggesting some effort on the part of a dreamer to stay airborne (I know this feeling so well!). Pomegranate, pictured twice within the canvas, is some sort of a catalyst for a dream; also half-opened pomegranate stuffed with ripe seeds represents feminine sexuality. There's giant fish (Dali often used fish's head as a symbol of female genitalia) from a mouth of which there emerges a tiger, and another tiger emerges from a mouth of the previous one. Big cats may be seen as symbols of sexual desire and, simultaneously, fear of sexual intercourse. Sharp claws of the tigers are about to pierce soft and smooth flesh of innocently sleeping woman (I think it alludes to the masochistic fantasies of an individual, as we both fear and excitedly wait for the skin to be ripped by the claws). Elephant -looking animal on long, bird-like legs is seen in the distance (I am still trying to figure out what it might represent). Entire scene is set on Dali's favorite serene landscape painted in calm, pastel tones, which contradict the violent tension of the composition thus heightening it.

The splitting point: Picasso and Matisse

"Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" by Pablo Picasso was painted in 1907 and represents a turning point not only in Picasso' style, but in the development of the 20th Century art. Picasso tried to continue the decomposition of the human form, that was began by Cezanne in his "Bathers". Picasso did many preliminary studies of the nude female figure, all in classical style.
"Les Demoiselles" depict five prostitutes waiting for the clients in the brothel. Preliminary sketches show that originally Picasso planned to place two male figures in the composition, but eventually eliminated them. The surface of the canvas is treated as completely flat, only the drape on the left and the edge of a table with fruit suggest some depth. The figures are represented in multiple perspectives with harsh, geometric shapes that, in some instances, pass thru each other. Faces look like masks, which alludes to alienation and clearly shows influence of the African ritual masks (the two women on the right) and Iberian sculptures (the three women on the left). The style in which figures are portrayed changes from left to right, which adds to the overall tension created by sharp geometric lines. Although the female shapes are still distinguishable, they are composed of the geometric shapes with sharp edges; in some instances there's passage of colors, similar to Cezannes' works. This painting denotes the birth of Cubism.
"Portrait of Mme. Matisse" painted by Henry Matisse in 1905 is representative of the Fauvist movement. The face of Matisse's wife is painted in bright unnatural colors and is reminiscent of the African ritual mask, rather than real face. Color here is liberated from the traditional role of a supportive element to the line. This portrait is called sometimes "The green stripe" after the color of the stripe on Mme. Matisse' faces that separates what traditionally would have been light and shadow sides. Warm hues are describing the lit side and cool ones-the shaded one. There are large areas of flat color, such as the two parts of the background, the back of a chair and Mme. Matisse dress, which repeats the colors of the wall and the chair. Just as face is clearly divided in two, so is the background. The blue surface of hair both unifies and flattens the image.
Both of theses works were created during the time when Fauvist movement was at its height. Both paintings show the influence of African ritual masks, clearly visible in the shape of eyes and eyebrows and overall simplified face rendering. Both treat the surface of canvas as flat.
While Matisse is concerned with the color and its liberation from being descriptive, Picasso studies the human shape and attempts to further decompose it. Although Picasso still uses rich palette in "Les Demoiselles" and the women bodies are painted in flesh tones, there's already caution with the color, which eventually will lead to termination of all the colors but gray and brown in later Cubist paintings.
I think these two paintings mark the place in the history of art where the road for artists split: Fauvist obsession with color leads to the interest in the painting technique and the Cubist decomposition of shape promotes exploration the components of a human being and its relation to the outside world.


American Ashcan painters

There certainly are similarities between the American ashcan painters and the European realists of the end of the 19th century. The chosen subject matter, of course, is the most obvious. Ashcan artists concentrated on portraying of everyday life of the poor Americans hoping to attract attention to the conditions those people lived and worked in. However, it is my opinion, that, while created some interesting artwork, they have failed in their crusade. Because the dark palette they utilized and, in most cases, overcrowded canvas detract from the humanity of the portrayed. Therefore, if the viewer does not come from the same background as those pictured, he will have little sympathy for people pictured. Thus the painting fails at the most desirable task of connecting with the viewer and making him reconsider his position towards suffering fellow humans. Portraits where a face can be seen in a more intimate way, work much better in this respect. For example, painting "The laundress" by Robert Henri evokes much more sympathy in a viewer than "The laundress" by Everett Shinn, where the figure of a woman is nothing but a part of a dilapidated cityscape. We might feel sorry for the latter, but hardly sympathetic to the degree of going out there and helping her, or, happened we pass by, even talking to her, as the dark environment around strifes to alienate.
It is one thing to simply show how things are seen from the OUTSIDE, and it is very different to show things as they appear from the INSIDE. But to show a subject from the inside means to INTERPRET and any kind of artistic interpretation of the subject goes against the beliefs of the realists.
I feel that Robert Henri realized that certain amount of interpretation is necessary in order to create a successful work. He wrote to Sloan on 14 September 1919: (excerpt is located here)
"But anywhere -- even in a studio working from the model to get the thing which hangs together there comes a time when it is better to have the model sit down behind you instead of in front so that you can go ahead. (Para) Anyhow, all work that is worth while has got to be memory work -- even with a model before you in the quiet light of the studio. There has got to come a time when you have what you want to know from the model, when the model had better be sitting behind you than before -- and unless such a time as this does come its not likely the work will get below the surface."
The painting Willie Gee", 1904 is a portrait of a newspaper boy who delivered Henri's newspaper. The dark tones exemplify the ashcan school palette, there's no cropping, the figure placed right in the middle as in most traditional portraits. What is radical though, is the subject matter. The boy doesn't sem to pose, he gazes at the viewer calmly and openly. By his dress we understand that he comes from a very poor family, yet he is proud. He holds in his hand an apple, apparently a gift. I really like this work because there's so much genuine feeling in it, it is not about what rhetoric but about a real live being with real feelings! Just look into those eyes…


Frida Kahlo

"Frida is the only example in the history of art of an artist who tore open her chest and heart to reveal the biological truth of her feelings. The only woman who has expressed in her work an art of the feelings, functions, and creative power of woman."( excerpt is taken here)
My favorite artist from the modernist period is Frida Kahlo. While I do like Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings, I feel that she somewhat afraid to admit to her feminine side. It is quite strong in her painting, as many have noticed, but she kept stubbornly claiming that her flower paintings do not symbolize feminine sexuality.
I adore Frida because she was not afraid to openly show herself as she was!

"I am not sick. I am broken.
But I am happy as long as I can paint."
While there are many fascinating self-portraits of Frida that I like, one particular painting, "The flower of Life" fascinates me more than any other.
Here a fantastic plant is transformed into a female figure where the trumpet of a flower is the body, the foliage is the skirt of a dress…there are hands and head and even some internal structure visible. I really like the palette here-warm earth and orange tone, symbolizing the reproductive power of Earth and sun.
While it is my opinion that Georgia O'Keeffe flowers depict female genitalia, Frida's painting has more of a cosmic feel to it, it surges with energy.
I have read that Georgia O'Keeffe and Frida had a romantic encounter during Frida's visit to the US. While I do not know how much truth there is in such claims, these two artists certainly seem like a likely match.
I loved the recent film "Frida" with Salma Hyek playing part of Frida, it is a marvelous work of art in itself and I think every artist should see it.

Tatiana Malinko©2003