Painting Reality: Influential Artists and Movements
In my first semester research, I focused on working artists using the human figure in order to understand current trends in painting. I learned a lot about modern approaches to the figure and representation, which challenged my thinking and my work. It also inspired me to revisit the work of influential past artists in search of helpful concepts and ideas. I’ve decided to set aside an entire paper for the work of Max Beckmann and Norman Rockwell, so I will not discuss them here. Instead, I’ll discuss a group of influential artists working in roughly the same 20 year period: the New Objectivity painters of Weimar Germany in the 1920s, and the work of N.C. Wyeth, Grant Wood and Edward Hopper. These artists all manage to capture a sense of nostalgia and longing in their work through their uniqueness of vision and use of stylization.
The painters of the New Objectivity movement never set out to explore nostalgia and longing. Instead, they were participants in an exciting decade where art and culture boomed in Germany. It all came to an abrupt end with the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, when nearly all of the artists fled the country or were killed. Today, their paintings remain as relics of an era distant from a post WWII world. New Objectivity was a return to representational art, and arose to counter the emotional color-driven works of expressionism. Most of these painters had fought in WWI, and carried deep emotional scars. They had seen hell with their own eyes in the trenches, and in a fragile Germany after the war had great distaste for false optimism.
Artists such as George Grosz, Otto Dix and Christian Schad set out to portray “real life” as literally as possible. For Grosz and Dix, their paintings became the grotesque caricatures of the high-class German elite. Schad explored themes of loneliness and uncertainty through his quiet portraits of German nightlife. “His sociality is that of private and semi-private relationships governed by sexuality, even if the public content sometimes appears to conceal this” (Michalski 46). One thing all of these painters have in common is a stylization that extends beyond reality and yet somehow captures more of it. I find this work fascinating. Though often brutal in content, these works manage to capture the human condition in a way that still speaks today. Knowing the outcome of Germany certainly changes the way these pieces are viewed. They become romanticized reminders of an era lost forever.
N.C. Wyeth was an artist who made his career portraying idealistic views of the past. Well known for his many paintings reproduced in classic children’s books, advertisements and government war posters, Wyeth was a giant in American illustration who knew how to tell a story better than anyone. He based all of his paintings in what he perceived as reality, tirelessly researching each image for historical accuracy and painting outside in nature to capture vibrant colors and atmospheric effects. He was a master at projecting himself into the scenes he was painting, giving them truthfulness and accuracy that few others would accomplish. “There is a romanticism and idealism to most of his works: the heroes are strong and virile, the flags wave majestically, victory is always at hand” (Smith 26).
Despite his enormous success, he was unhappy as an artist because people in the art establishment looked down on him as being too commercial. He once wrote, “There is a very depressing belief in artistic circles, particularly among the painters themselves, that illustration is not art but a craft, that it is not conceived from inspirational sources- The painters opinion of the illustrators profession as compared to his own, if often very near that of contempt” (Allen 179). Wyeth spent his entire career trying to gain artistic recognition as a painter, and didn’t receive a one-man show until 1939. He had been painting mass-produced illustrations loved by millions for almost 40 years. Today, there is a renewed interest in the illustrative paintings of N.C. Wyeth. When I saw a show of the paintings he created for the classic book series, I was amazed at the power of his figures and his use of color. They speak to an idealized/romanticized past filled with great adventure. It’s easy to be completely drawn in by them.
Another artist I have come to greatly admire is Grant Wood. He was a painter who had great understanding of subtle stylization and humor in his figures. He was also the driving figure in the American Regionalist movement, which began rather suddenly when Kansas City art dealer Maynard Walker coined the term and introduced Wood (along with Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry) to the art establishment in 1933. Said Walker, “Here is a real American art, an indigenous art expression, which really springs from American soil and seeks to interpret American life” (Jennings 26). At the time, there was a great desire in American art to break away from European traditions.
Said Wood: “Because of this new emphasis upon native materials, the artist no longer finds it necessary to migrate even to New York, or to seek any great metropolis. No longer is it necessary for him to suffer the confusing cosmopolitanism, the noise, the too intimate gregariousness of the large city” (Wood 131). It’s clear from Wood’s writings that he is objecting not only the physical act of traveling to Europe or New York, but more importantly the journey through popular artistic trends centered in those places. Instead, Wood believed that the artist should draw upon their home to find inspiration. It was this uncommon rural perspective, he believed, that was needed in places like New York.
These were big ideas in America during the Great Depression when Americans were nostalgic for a rural Eden were life was good and morals were strong. The only problem was that there was no real rural Eden. “It was the kind of image that one looks back on with the nostalgia and yearning that, in times of stress, became confused with a sense of history- rather as the wholesome, un-conflicted image of America generated by network TV in the 1950s became a “real” but lost America for right-wing fantasists like Newt Gengrich in the mid-1990s” (Hughes 439). Grant Wood’s work appeals to me for this reason. There really isn’t anything special about his subject matter, but his images of awkward and rather plain people and landscapes speak to a simpler time and a sense of longing for something now unreachable. This approach to art is counter-cultural in an art world always looking to a future and an art that is cutting edge.
It’s now known that Grant Wood was closeted homosexual. Knowing this ads a whole new element to works like “American Gothic”. In the strange posing and composition of the painting, was he trying to take a subtle jab at the people who didn’t understand him or was he praising idwestern virtues? Either way, this duality is what makes the works of Grant Wood intriguing to me. In using 50s imagery in my paintings, I’m attempting to create an art that does more than mock the subject or praise a virtue; one that suggests both but also completely relies on the sensibilities of the viewer.
Like Grant Wood, Edward Hopper became well known as a symbol of an original American art. Hopper had a long career stretching into the 1960s, and was openly resistant to the abstract trends of modernism. He later became something of an outsider to the art world as a has-been representational painter. His work has been very influential to me. Hopper uses light, shape and color in his work to bring ordinary objects and surroundings to life in a most unusual way. Not unlike the other artists I’ve discussed, there’s an illusiveness to Hopper’s work that makes it appealing. “Hopper offered a brand of realism not bound by reality. His work appears at once traditional and modern; his women both erotic and puritanical; and the places he depicted are familiar and foreign, comfortable and disquieting. While Hopper insisted that it was himself he was after in his painting, a part of all of us resides in these quiet spaces” (Barter 11).
Hopper paints each picture with a sense of detachment; he leaves the scenes open ended. Each composition possesses a “self-contained autonomous reality” (Kransfelder 44). The ability of painting to show reality was something that Hopper constantly wrestled with: “I was never able to paint what I set out to paint”, he once wrote. Instead, he presented what he saw in a completely original way. He altered his scenes by removing the unnecessary details and people, and simplified forms to shapes of color and light. It gives his work a stillness and serenity unlike any other. These moments of frozen time also make the strangeness of Hopper’s paintings acceptable. For example, his female figures are often awkward, but their placement in the picture turns the role of inadvertent voyeur onto the viewer. Through all of his work, there is a sense of timelessness and an appreciation for the simple beauty of surroundings.
What draws me to these artists is the way their images engage the viewer. New Objectivity paintings transport the viewer to a bygone era, while the works of Grant Wood and N.C. Wyeth speak of an idealized historical past. Edward Hopper managed to freeze time all together in his works. Ultimately, I feel that my work is about time as it relates to viewer perspective. Working with images from the 50s is a way for me to do this, but I’m aware that this idea is much more complex than images from one decade. I hope to progress to the point in my work were the time period is less noticeable, so the works become more about memory in general than a specific point in the past. The works and ideas of these artists have been invaluable and will continue to be the basis for my paintings.