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Jess Oberes-Dunn

lives in: Long Beach
I am an artist with a wide range of artistic interests. I believe that art is like oxygen. If we don't have it, we will, at some point, cease to exist. Curtin University of Technology, BA, Art... [more]

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posted on 06.30.09

Art can be a powerful platform from which to convey and impose icons and images of national identity and culture. In our current modernity, the continued movement of the avant-garde continues to have a mixed blessing of adoration and disdain. To observe 'art' and understand it is one thing, but to find it aesthetically pleasing is another story. However, what has changed is the ability to freely express our views about the Arts, without fear of reprisals and terror, at least for many parts of the world.

During the Third Reich, every facet of the Arts was programmed by demagogic Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist German Workers Party. Before Hitler became Nazi Fuhrer, he supported himself as an artist, selling watercolors and advertising. With propaganda director Joseph Goebbels and other members of the Nazi political machine, art, radio, film, education, and science served as platforms to deliver both overt and insidious propaganda campaigns to spread anti-Semitism, lies and dissension against other cultures; lifestyles, religions, and principles, that did not conform to the Nazi view of Germany and its citizens.

After the end of World War I, the resulting Versailles Treaty forced Germany into an economic decline. The main conditions of the treaty included downsizing Germany's military power to 100,000 soldiers, restitution of 52 billion marks in gold paid to the Allies, dispossession of territories, and demilitarization of the Rhine's left bank. As a result, many Germans were without jobs and bankruptcy was rife. As such, many German people were psychologically vulnerable and ready to find scapegoats to blame for their personal economic hardships.

Additionally, Nazi propaganda pushed the notion of Germany as ancestral lands to be nurtured and protected from non-Aryan races and mass industrialization. The German identity was rooted in the literature of classical antiquity and mythology as a race of nature loving, mystical, austere, loyal, warlike and innately superior people. Artwork commissioned by the Third Reich propagated the belief amongst German citizens that their race was superior over others. The prevalent theme used in both propaganda and official high art of the Third Reich were the ideologies of Blut und Boden (Blood and Soil). Blut und Boden is a metaphor that integrates Germanic people with the cultural history of the land. It was coined by Rudolf Darre, the Nazi Reichsminister of Agriculture, who believed that the writings of a Roman historian, Cornelius Tacitus, who wrote the manuscript Germania around the year 98 AD, were anthropological studies of the German people. Darre based his belief that Germans were a superior race on this manuscript, in particular, a section translated from the original Latin version as follows:

"For myself, I concur in opinion with such as suppose the people of Germany never to have mingled by inter-marriages with other nations, but to have remained a people pure, and independent, and resembling none but themselves. Hence amongst such a mighty multitude of men, the same make and form is found in all, eyes stern and blue, yellow hair, huge bodies, but vigorous only in the first onset. Of pains and labour they are not equally patient, nor can they at all endure thrift and heat. To bear hunger and cold they are hardened by their climate and soil.”

Nazi official high art was based on neoclassical and neoromantic themes of idealized figures depicting German people working on romanticized German landscapes. Landscape paintings dominated over other subjects. Landscape and the Volt (the People) were entwined and inseparable. These idealized images of men and women supposedly exemplified the Germanic race. This official high art dominated the annual Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung, beginning in 1937 with Hitler selecting many of the exhibition pieces. Replacing avant-garde art were images of German people in rural or domestic environments, depicted performing work that related to the 'common' people. The specific images chosen for public consumption were of athletically modeled statues reminiscent of classical antiquity as an attempt to parallel Germany's ties to the neoclassical age. Other images included soldiers portrayed in heroic postures, romanticist depictions of fertile female nudes or females in demure and domestic occupations, sublime landscapes and highly unrealistic imagery of a 'gentle' war. Hitler himself served as model for many of the paintings and posters, compositions imbuing him with a god-like aura. Art genres such as Expressionism, Cubism and so on was labeled as degenerate art, destroyed and replaced by mostly 19th century realist paintings that the Nazis believed represented the true Aryan people, landscapes and way of life. Anything related to the avant-garde art movement was discouraged and German artists were censured, threatened or murdered for non-compliance.

In 1935, an arts exhibition called “Blood and Soil” opened in Munich. A newspaper critic wrote: 'The exhibition...aimed to collect healthy and good and earthbound art and to fight for a new strength in art against decadence...As preface to the exhibition stand the words of Professor Schultze-Naumburg. “Art has to grow from the blood and soil if it wants to live.'

In 1937, the Nazis stripped 16000 avant-garde works from German museums, most of which were destroyed while hundreds were sold off to foreigners. As part of their political strategy to define the aesthetics of what “Great German Art” was compared to what degenerate, non-German art was, the Nazis selected 650 of what they considered the most provocative avant-garde works in order to defame and deride such work. To close in on the comparisons between what was considered Great German Art and degenerate art, the Nazis soon after launched the Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung (Great German Art Exhibition), an equally large exhibition of Nazi-approved art. The confiscated avant-garde art collection was derisively labeled, “Entartete Kunst” (degenerate art) in exhibitions located in Munich, Austria and throughout Germany. In just over three years time, the collection was viewed by up to 3 million people.

In the early 1970s, Art Spiegelman (b. 1948) created a series of underground comic strips turned graphic novels (Pulitzer prize winning Maus and Maus II) that gave its viewers a glimpse of the horrors of the Holocaust. His parents were survivors of the concentration camps during the Holocaust and their story is recreated in these comic books. Entertaining at first, the reader is drawn into this world of innocuous pictures and text only to realize too late its actual relation and references to the events of Nazi Germany and victims of the concentration camps during the Holocaust. Particularly interesting is the use of animals in place of human characters in the story, a form of characterization that the Nazi's also used, albeit somewhat differently, in their propaganda against the Jewish people and others they considered degenerates. In Spiegelman's work the Germans are portrayed as cats, the Jewish people as mice, Americans as dogs and the French as frogs. In this work by Spiegelman (and many others by post Nazi and anti-Nazi artists) the Arts are once again utilized to perpetuate the power of stereotyping race, culture and national identity, much like what Nazi Germany did through their propaganda machine, with the difference being to educate the global community about racism, the effects of propaganda and most importantly, to serve as a reminder to never forget the Nazi's atrocities of ethnic cleansing and totalitarian government.

Images (from left to right: Sepp Hilz, Country Venus (Nazi approved art), Friedrich Casper, The Cross in the Mountains (Idealized landscape), Nazi propaganda poster, Max Pechstein, Self Portrait, 1920 (Nazi labeled degenerate art)

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posted on 06.30.09





Wider Australian visual culture in post World War I, like most Western societies at that time, had a high appreciation for European 'salon' style art. With avant-garde leading the art world in Europe, including a particularly high interest in 'primitivism', Australia realized its unique position of having 'authentic primitive' art in its own 'backyard' intact in its rocks, barks, wood objects and most importantly, in the memories and traditions of Aboriginal peoples. The perception of 'primitivism' designated traditional Aboriginal art as visual relics of the country's primitive past, thereby giving it no significant place in the genre of 'fine arts' until the 1970s. What was considered 'fine art' was usually left to the discretion of art and gallery directors that their interpretation (which was often based on the established European conception of fine art) and approval of particular art trends. This was highly influential on how the Australian public related, understood, or accepted art. Additionally, only White Australia artists were recognized. On the other hand, while traditional Aboriginal art began to be appreciated, it was also rejected as 'fine art.' It was also an era when the lives of Aboriginal people were controlled by a political and social environment based on Australian assimilation policies and protectionism. This is the background on which a member of the Arrernte (Aranda) tribe, Albert Namatjira (1902-1959) made his indelible mark in Australian art.

In 1877, the Lutheran church established the Hermannsburg mission in Arrernte country in the Central Desert of Australia. When it was initially started, Hermannsburg, like most mission settlements in Australia, ran its operations with the intent of 'educating' Aboriginal people placed in its care, on Christian values and religion. Albert Namatjira was born in the mission in 1902. In 1926, the mission was placed under the administration of Pastor F.W. Albrecht (1895-1984). Under his supervision, Aboriginal members were allowed to learn about their traditional culture and language. In this more tolerant environment, Namatjira was educated in both Christian and Aboriginal ways and was exposed to both Aboriginal and European images and traditions. Pastor Albrecht was highly pivotal in encouraging and assisting Namatjira in his artistic efforts and is also credited for purchasing his first set of paints and materials. Namatjira received a craftsman and stockman's education, thus establishing a foundation of varied interests and reinforcing innately strong observational skills. Before his career as a painter, Namatjira was already known for his ability to produce quality local artifacts, such as boomerangs and pokers, as well as for his initiative, enterprise and keenness for an opportunity to earn money. When artists, Rex Battarbee (1893-1973) and John Gardner (1906-1987) held their art exhibitions at the Hermansburg Mission sometime before 1934, Namatjira was intrigued by their paintings and the idea of earning a living as a painter of landscapes. Gardner is noted as recalling that Namatjira once said to him, “You know, one of these days I am going to take up painting...just as a hobby, mind you.”

In 1936, Namatjira received his initial art training from Battarbee during a two month expedition to Palm Valley. The arrangement was that Namatjira would serve as a guide and in exchange, Battarbee would teach him the art of the watercolorist. Namatjira's desire to earn an income as an artist resulted in a concentrated effort that ensured his success in learning and becoming immensely capable of understanding the complex uses of watercolor medium. His quick learning curve so impressed Battarbee that he wrote, after they had been out for two weeks that, “Albert brought along a painting of the Amphitheatre to which I had not even seem him put to brush—I felt that he had done a job so well that he had no more to learn from me about color.” Batterbee and Pastor Albrecht recognized Namatjira's painting abilities and are greatly credited as being instrumental in organizing and controlling his exposure to Australian art and media. Namatjira's art career soon became successful after his first exhibition in 1937 at the Lutheran Synod at Nuriootpa, Adelaide. During his second exhibition in 1939, at the Royal South Australian Society for the Arts in Adelaide, one of his paintings, Haasts Bluff, 1956, was purchased by an art gallery, establishing a milestone that a work by an Aboriginal artist was regarded as 'fine art.' This event placed Namatjira into the curious eyes of the general public, art patrons and the international art world, including Queen Elizabeth II, who requested to meet him on her first state visit to Australia in 1954.

Part of the public curiosity inspired by Namatjira's realistic landscape paintings was due to the fact he was an Aboriginal artist, rendering landscapes using European techniques, during a time in Australian history when racist attitudes and marginalizing government policies included the opinion that Aboriginal people were not intelligent enough, nor capable of any great intellect and therefore, could never equal white Australian artists. For example, during his artistic career and after his death, the work of Namatjira was openly criticized as being repetitive and skillfully rendered copies of Batterbee's own interpretation of the Central Desert landscape. Some anthropologists theorized that Namatjira was a product of successful assimilation and was emulating the European values of art as such. Contrary to those opinions, Namatjira never lost sight of his indigenous culture, and applied his own visual and cultural interpretation of the landscapes and subjects in his body of work.

Upon closer examination of Namatjira's paintings, the eye is drawn to the aesthetic appeal of vibrant colors and strong compositions depicting central Australian landscapes. However, an even closer examination brings to focus an absence of Aboriginal people and any evidence of mission life and colonial settlements. As Namatjira's work matured, the single yet prominent ghost gum tree overlooking the landscape became a recognizable motif, as would the sharp horizon line separating sky from land. The interpretation of this single element in the landscape varies widely but perhaps one may consider the outlook of the artist as a singled out Aboriginal artist looking upon untouched landscape, symbolizing a time before white settlements and colonization. The landscape qualities in his later work also differ to these earlier paintings, with hills more deeply shadowed and furrowed and the land stretching up to the sky taking up more of the entire composition. On their aesthetic values alone, the paintings of Namatjira and future Arrernte artists clearly indicate enjoyment and appreciation of landscape: individual responses to the landscape that are certainly not a purely Western domain.

Namatjira's prolific and startlingly swift success as a watercolorist was a significant milestone, marking a time when other Aboriginal artists began to recognize possible self sustaining opportunities in paintings of the landscape. Namatjira's success was pivotal to the creation of the Hermannsburg School, as the mission would be referred to after his death. Aboriginal culture obligated Namatjira to pass on his art knowledge to tribal members and kin. Hence, Edwin Pareroultja (1918-1986), Reuben Pareroultja (1915-1984), Otto Pareroultj (1914-1973), Wenton Rubuntja (1926-2005) and his sons, Enos (1920-1966) and Oscar Namatjira (1922-1991) became precursors of the Arrernte watercolorists school.

It is important to understand that Namatjira success as an artist brought about changes not only in the acceptance of Aboriginal artists, but also influenced the rising awareness of injustices toward Indigenous Australians. At a time when indigenous Australians were denied the full rights of citizenship that otherwise was granted freely to white Australians and white immigrants, the Australian government granted Namatjira full citizenship based on his outstanding and 'unique' artistic accomplishments, thereby being the first Northern Territory Aborigine to be freed as a ward of the State. Unfortunately, Namatjira's personal life soon after his success was troubled, exacerbated further by journalistic commentaries in news and gossip columns that were meant to cause controversy. Namatjira's financial situation was also troubled at the time of his death. Additionally, as a citizen he was given privileges that were forbidden to Aborigines, such as the ability to purchase and drink alcohol and to buy land. In 1959, compelled to share, according to traditional custom, Namatjira was arrested and charge with supplying alcohol to his tribesmen and subsequently sent to serve a shortened 2 month jail term on a Papunya mission, a motion of leniency that was permitted due to his celebrity status. After release from his jail sentence, he never painted again and died soon after from a heart attack that some claim was aggravated by depression.

His death in 1959 turned the tide in Aboriginal affairs and brought further focus on the unfair treatment of Aboriginal people. By the late 1960s, Australian politics were rapidly changing to include the granting of full citizenship to Aboriginal people, sweeping reforms, abolishing colonial assimilation and white only immigration policies and the advent of powerful Aboriginal land rights movements. Despite the horrific treatment and restrictions forced upon them by colonials and colonial descendants, the Aboriginal people continue to endure, passing on their rich heritage of Dreamtime rituals, traditions and languages. 70 years after the first Melbourne exhibition in 1938, the story of Albert Namatjira and the Arrernte watercolorists hold a solid niche in Australian art history and the Fine Arts and is appreciated by people of all nations. Today, in a more open and tolerant society, both traditional and non-traditional art created by Aboriginal artists takes its place in the world as traditional and fine art genre.

Images source (National Gallery of Australia website)

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posted on 08.14.09


Henri Matisse
Pablo Picasso
Paul Cezanne
Edgar Degas
Pierre Bonnard


Visual Arts




Pablo Ruiz Picasso was an adventurous and profoundly creative artist whose manipulations of subject, form, color and line, in a wide diversity of mediums and techniques resulted in provocative and evocative artwork that challenged the conventional norms of 'aesthetics' and 'beauty' and enthralled even the most critical or uninterested of art audiences in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Picasso's life spanned two centuries.  During his lifetime and even after death, he continues to inspire and awe our modern world with a breathtaking vista of visual perspectives.  This particular writing only sweeps the surface of the artist up to the beginning of a politically conscious phase in his artistic career, which ended in 1973 with his death. 

Picasso lived a long 91 years. It would be a mistake to view Picasso's oeuvre of work and not take into consideration his upbringing, how and where he lived, with whom he was influenced and vice versa, what his beliefs were, the impact of changes in social, political and world economies and so on.  Many milestones of modern history occurred during his lifetime, from the Spanish American War in 1898 to the first email message sent in 1971.  It is an intriguing thought that should Picasso still be alive today, he would surely be utilizing the digital age, experimenting yet again with the 'new.

From an early age Picasso demonstrated strong creative drawing abilities.  His father, Don Jose Ruiz Blasco, an academically trained artist who specialized in domestic animal scenes and genre paintings, was an art teacher by profession.  He influenced his son's abilities by teaching Picasso personally, from the time he could pick up a pencil until entrance into formal art education.  Don Blasco began his son's formal education in the arts at the age of 11 by enrolling him in the School of Fine Arts in La Coruna in 1892.

During the early years as a developing artist, Picasso's style emulated the Old Masters, practicing from plaster casts, portrait sittings and local landscapes.  His first painting, First Communion, went on exhibition in Barcelona in 1896.  While traveling to Madrid with his family in 1895, Picasso saw paintings by Spanish artists Diego de Silva y Velazquez (1590-1660), Francisco de Zurbaran (1598-1664) and Francisco Goya (1746-1828).  The First Communion painting has elements of Spanish Baroque, typical of these artists in that the subject matter is highly religious in nature and realistically depicting the solemnity of the occasion.  The First Communion painting also has elements of chiaroscuro, a technique favored by Caravaggio and Rembrandt in the 17th century.  The male figure standing next to the young bride reciting from her book of prayers was modeled by Picasso's father.  Picasso's second academic painting Science and Charity, also has elements of Spanish Baroque.  This painting was given a gold medal in Malaga.  For the next three years, Picasso continued to render his artwork in the academic style.

By the time he was 17, Picasso was already seeking artistic independence from contemporary art teachings.  Not surprisingly he left the Academy in Barcelona in the winter of 1897, but contracted scarlet fever only to return home to recover.  Afterwards, for nearly 8 months, he and fellow artist, Pallares, paint mountains, local forests and landscapes while living part of the time in caves.  In 1899, Picasso returned to Barcelona to begin an independent bohemian life.  War between the USA and Spain broke out and everywhere in the western world, industrial developments were fast becoming the norm of life, providing further impetus to often passionate, intellectual discourses amongst anarchist, radicals and ordinary citizens on the dynamic issues in the political, social and economic scenes.  Although some of Picasso's associates were highly articulate and active on the issues of the day, Picasso himself would not incorporate political messages in his artwork until the late 1930s.

Picasso, already known to local contemporary Catalan artists through his earlier achievements, found similar companionship at the artists' cafe, Els Quartre Gats (The Four Cats) where he designed the menu and made the acquaintance of other artists who frequented the cafe, some of whom would become roommates and or lifelong friends.  The value of this early networking manifested future opportunities for Picasso in Barcelona and Paris. For example, painter Ramon Casas was influential in introducing Picasso to Theophile Alexandre Steinlen (1859-1923) and Henri de Toulouse Lautrec (1864-1901).  It was no accident that satirical, anarchist, leftist, bohemian elements from these two artists and the other collective modernists and post-modernists artist and poets who frequented Els Quartre Gats would influence Picasso's future artwork.  His rendering of the lithographic menu for the cafe, Menu of Els Quarte Gats, 1899 is reminiscent of Steinlen's lithograph of A la Bodiniere, a style rendered in Art Nouveau.

Despite his early disparagement of the contemporary avant-garde, 1899 would mark the beginning of changes in Picasso's art style.  In the fall of 1900, 19 year old Picasso moved to Paris with fellow artist and poet, 20 year old Carlos Casagemas.  There through the Catalan community, Picasso met Pedro Manach, an art dealer who gave Picasso a two-year painting commission in exchange for 150 francs a month, his first official paid commission.  In Paris, Picasso saw the works of avant-garde artists, Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Paul Signac (1863-1935), Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) and Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940).  Picasso painted his first French life painting entitled Le Moulin de la Galette, a popular venue that has been immortalized by Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) and Toulouse-Lautrec, to name just a few well known artists.  The style of this particular painting is inspired by the Impressionists, although it was Toulouse-Lautrec's version of Renoir's 1876 painting of the famous Moulin in 1889 that ultimately inspired Picasso's version of Moulin life.

It was around this time that Picasso's friend Casagemas became deeply involved in an unsatisfactory and ultimately fatal relationship with the model Germaine (Laure Gargallo) who rejects him.  According to various but similar historical accounts, Casagemas attempted to kill Germaine by shooting her but she recovered.  Casagemas shot himself, fatally.  Picasso was in Madrid at the time of the tragedy.  The resulting psychological effects of Casagemas' death manifests in the form of several paintings of Casagemas in death.  These were painted in 1901 and years after, in Picasso's artwork during the Blue Period, in particular, La Vie, which depicts Casagemas as a main subject (in the final rendering).

The term Blue Period refers to the time between 1901 and 1904 when Picasso used a predominately monochromatic blue green palette.  His subjects during this period are widely proletariat.  He was also known to frequent the circus often and later would paint harlequins as major subjects, a period sometimes referred to as the Rose Period or the Harlequin Period.  The painting of La Vie marked the milestone of the Blue Period.  This painting and a few others such as The Old Guitarist and The Blindman's Meal, also incorporate elements of Mannerist works reminiscent of El Greco.

Around the time of the Blue Period and further into the future, Picasso created a series of caricatures that had sexual and brothel themes, of which some of the images portray his friends and roommates in sexual acts.   Caricature art was the tool of literary critics that became popular in illustrated magazines and such.  His earlier pornographic drawings interested another bohemian, Guillaume Apollinaire.   Apollinaire was an articulate and important member of the Parisian literary circle who would be partly instrumental in bringing Picasso's other work to the attention of the Paris art scene.  Their friendship played an important role in Picasso's exposure to the French literary avant-garde, including meeting art dealers and collections. He and Apollinaire were frequent patrons of the "Closerie des Lilas", in Montparnasse where local artists mingled.

Picasso made many important acquaintances throughout his career particularly during the early years.  Two of the most influential would be Leo and Gertrude Stein, art collectors who ran a salon for aspiring and established artists to meet and exchange ideas.  The Steins purchased several of Picasso's paintings and later introduced him to the older and more established, Henri Matisse (1869-1954), a follower of Fauvism.  The friendship and rivalry between Matisse and Picasso spanned both their lives and to this day, is a relationship that is intellectualized, debated and romanticized.  Picasso also met Andre Derain (1880-1954), another well known Impressionist artist who experimented and painted in the Fauvist style.

In 1905, Picasso traveled to Holland for a month at the invitation of young writer Tom Schilperoort. There he painted Three Dutch Girls and Dutch Girl (La Belle Hollandaise).  Picasso's style during this trip is truly different, drawing on the classical.  Picasso's subjects in his subsequent paintings upon return to Paris, have an air of detachment such as, Portrait of Madame Canals, Boy with a Pipe, Woman with a Fan and Young Girl with a Basket of Flowers.  Upon examination of these paintings, one feels a certain calculated seriousness, almost an aloofness of feelings, similar to the two paintings he rendered while in Holland, and more stylized and simplified.

According to Picasso's partner of 7 years, Francoise Gilot (who was also his muse for many of his works), Picasso was highly affected and inspired by African Art when he discovered them on a visit to the Trocadero Museum in Paris, during the spring of 1907.   From Francoise' account of that visit, Picasso's reaction was as follows:

"Men had made those masks and other objects for a sacred purpose, a magic purpose, as a kind of mediation between themselves and the unknown hostile forces that surrounded them, in order to overcome their fear and horror by giving it a form and an image.  At that moment, I realized that this was what painting was all about.  Painting isn't an aesthetic operation; it is a form of magic designed as mediation between this strange, hostile world and us, a way of seizing power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desires.  When I came to that realization, I knew I had found my way."

In 1907, Picasso unveils perhaps the most provocative paintings of his oeuvre, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.  This very large oil painting kept him busy for most of the year, resulting in an astonishing 895 studies for the final piece.  The painting consists of 5 women, all posted alluringly or erotically and highly stylized with angular strong lines and blocky large forms, and slightly off centre, is a plate of fruit.  The faces of three of the women on the left are recognizably human, however, the faces on the women on the right appear to have primitive masks.  This painting is the milestone of Picasso's endeavor into the innovative use of integrating lines and forms of primitive objects with contemporary subjects (composition of women and fruit).  It is a monumental work that retains the 'magic' and 'power' usually attributed to primitivism.  Picasso's concept of integrating what was (the primitive), into what could be (stylized ideas of form), was both original and fascinating.

Picasso's work Analytical Cubism, 1910, a famous portrait of art dealer Ambroise Vollard, is a major departure from the style he adapted in creating, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.  Cubism was developed by Georges Braque at about the same time although some attribute its initial conception to Paul Cezanne.  But it was Matisse who commented during an exhibition of Braque's new work in the Paris Salon that the " consisted of lots of little cubes." Hence the term 'Cubism' was born.  Braque and Picasso worked collaboratively on this new style with the latter borrowing Braque's innovative use of letters and a technique called the 'comb' (to emulate wood grain).  Braque continued to experiment with other mediums such as sand, plaster and paper products to create or simulate three-dimensional surfaces.  Picasso borrowed these innovations to make his own using 'found' materials such as string, wood, metals, newspapers and so on.  Hence the age of modern three-dimensional work, the Assemblage was born. 

Between 1916 and to 1936, Picasso's oeuvre tends to the classical and surreal.  He is well established and affluent.  He marries his first wife, Olga, a ballerina, and shortly becomes involved in applied arts, successfully designing several theatre productions, such as the curtain design for Parade in 1919. During the 1930's Picasso's work became more abstract and surreal.  There is sense of violence in many of his paintings.  At that time, Spain and most of Europe was highly unstable yet Picasso never really got involved in the politics of the day.  However, this changed with the painting of Guernica.

In 1939, civil war broke out in Morocco and made its way to Spain. The war took the lives of over 1.5 million people.  Picasso was director of the Prado, Spain's most important art gallery.  In January 1937, he was commissioned by the government to paint a mural for the Spanish pavilion at the Paris World War.  When news of the bombing of the holy Basque town of Guernica hit the airwaves and newspapers, Picasso's original plans for the mural changed direction. For Picasso, the bombing of Guernica embodied the atrocities of the civil war. Thus the composition of the mural became an allegory to Guernica.  This embedded message of the consequences of war was the beginning of Picasso's more active role in world politics and world peace.

Today, our global communities continue its fascination with  Picasso.  We are fascinated that Picasso does not fit neatly into a particular genre, as he utilized a vast array of techniques and styles (from Spanish Baroque to Primitivism to Pop Art), combining them later in life to develop new methods of expression that resulted in provocative effects.  He is also perhaps the most well documented modern artist in the history of art with early works and documentation saved from his childhood and throughout his long and productive life.  Appreciation aside, a daunting task continues for art historians to 'read' into the tens of thousands of Picasso's creations in terms of their significance in modern art history, in the scheme of the artist's personal life, as well as for the artists he associated and rivaled with.

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posted on 06.23.09


Frida Kahlo
Andre Breton
Diego Rivera


Visual Arts



Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo was a Mexican Surrealist artist, life-long admirer of Stalin, and wife of world-renowned muralist, Diego Rivera.  She was born in 1907 in a house called La Casa Azul, in the town of Coyoacán, Mexico, three years before the Mexican Revolution.  By the end of her life at age 47, Frida had produced approximately 200 paintings.

Frida's parents were of mixed ethnicity.  Her father, Guillermo Kahlo, was a Hungarian Jew who had been raised in Germany and was a successful photographer and painter.  Her mother, Matilde Calderon, was from Mexico, a religious woman of indigenous and Spanish origins.  When Frida was seven years old, she contracted polio, a disease that left her with one leg shorter and thinner than the other.  Nonetheless, she developed into an athletic teen, part sprite, tomboy and seductress.  Although  a promising student in other subjects, she excelled in the arts. Frida's early exposure to art was through her father, Guillermo, who taught her photography including retouching and coloring techniques.  She also apprenticed to printer, Fernando Fernandez, who taught her how to draw by copying prints.  These experiences were perhaps the beginning of Frida's path to becoming an artist.  However, it was not a career she would seriously embark upon until later.  At the age of 15, she entered the National Preparatory School to prepare to become a medical doctor. 

Frida's steps into the world of art was a gradual process, shadowed by her intent to become a medical doctor in order to support herself.  If one believed in destiny, perhaps it was her fate to suffer the terrible incident that precipitated her ascent into art. During a bus accident in Mexico, young Frida, who was only 18 at the time, was impaled by a handrail that went through her back and caused damage to her uterus, broke her spinal column, collarbone, ribs and pelvis and fractured her left, polio-afflicted leg.  Confined to bed during the long recuperation period, Frida's mother ordered a special painting easel over her daughter's hospital bed that enabled her to paint. First Self Portrait was painted during this time, inspired by her need for self-exploration and a plea for attention, a double dialogue that pervades most of her paintings.

Many of her paintings are self-portraits.   Frida once said, "I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone... because I am the person I know best."  Frida was in control when she painted and many of her self-portraits indicate this sense of control.  The self portraits are magnetic, drawing us to her relentless charismatic gaze, pulling us in with eyes that grip us in an awareness of only her, leaving a lingering feeling of curiosity about the strikingly featured unsmiling woman.  Although Frida's later work are categorized as Surrealism, her art actually depicts personal narratives intertwining life and death.  Many of her later works are dreamlike and unnerving yet there is a logical theme to them, one that embodies Frida's life and not a dream world she was trying to emote.   A well known quote by Frida goes as follows, "I never knew I was a surrealist till Andre Breton came to Mexico and told me I was." 

Frida had a strong sense of Mexican national identity and this was due in large part to the charged political environment in Mexico, the influence of her husband Diego Rivera, and her (and Diego's) participation in communistic and revolutionary activities that began during her teen years to the last days before her death.  Throughout most of her life, Frida expressed her ties to The People or La Raza, not only her in art but in her style of dress, behavior and immediate personal surroundings and home.  Frida embellished her work directly from Mexican popular culture, where the metamorphosis of humans into plants or animals, myths, dreams, reason and fantasy are commonly entwined in Mexican oral and visual artistry.   In the imagery of the works she painted, her cultural background took a central role, taking symmetry with the vivid earthiness of Mexican and Aztec mythologies, while invoking personal demons she hung on to for inner strength and creative inspiration.

Some of Frida's paintings have both religious and Communist iconologies, a contradiction of philosophies.  An example of this, is the painting entitled, Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick, 1954, in which Marx is depicted as a saint or God, with a peace dove on his left side while two large hands from the heavens on either side of Frida to give her support without her fallen crutches, while another large hand, on Marx's right side, strangles an American eagle that has the head of a caricature of Uncle Sam.   In another painting, My Nurse and I, 1937, Frida combines Christian symbolism (Madonna and Child) with pre-Hispanic iconography.  Celebration of her ancestral background is obvious in the painting of My Grandparents, My Parents and I, 1936.  She depicts her Mexican heritage in the painting Four Inhabitants of Mexico, with a pre-Spanish artifact in the middle that represents Mexico's pre-colonial past and of herself as a 4 year old, oddly detached from her surroundings. 

Frida wrote in her diary, "I will write to you with my eyes, always." If viewing some of Frida's more graphic paintings for the first time without any knowledge of her unconventional life, one's first response may be one of discomfort. Yet upon learning more about Frida, it makes sense to see the corsets featured in her paintings, painted as if they were part of her very skin and body.  These images were a statement of personal imprisonment as she was forced to wear eight different corsets for many years due to her physical disabilities.  Her bisexuality is depicted in the Two Nudes in a Forest, 1939, in which there are two female forms with similar features but different skin tones in an intimate forest setting.  Her brushstrokes suspend not only her life of physical suffering and unrequited loves, but also the wide spectrum of her world through the backgrounds filled with elements from Mexico's tumultuous political period, remnants of colonial Mexico, the effects of rapidly changing world economy and communication, tied together by Aztec symbolisms of life and death and Catholic iconology.

Frida was unable to carry a child to full term. This personal tragedy and her love, protectiveness, obsession, and frustrations with her husband, Diego, are manifested through paintings of an adult Rivera, held by Frida like a baby, in works such as, The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Diego, Me and Senor Xolotl, 1949 or his three eyed head embedded on the forehead of a self-portrait of a tearful Frida entitled, Diego and I, 1949. A tragic miscarriage that occurred during her trip in Detroit with Rivera, is clearly depicted in a painting entitled, Henry Ford Hospital, 1932.  In this painting, Frida is lying naked and weeping on a blood soaked bed, while she holds red ribbons to a male fetus, a snail, an orchid, a female torso and an autoclave. 

Frida is as much alive today as she was during her short lifetime, perhaps even more so. In early 2000, after a movie of her life featuring Selma Hayak as Frida, was released and did very well in the box office, Frida became a cult persona, further fostered by feminism, commercialism, and Mexican national identity.  Afterwards, contemporary society found Frida's artwork everywhere, from mini-refrigerator magnets to the sporting of her uni-brow. Shortly after the movie was released, one of her self-portraits was sold for over five million dollars, the first time that a Latin American work of art achieved such a value. A self-portrait of Frida even graced a 34-cent U.S. postage stamp, which was quite ironic given the United States' history of anti-communism and that Frida openly disliked American culture.

One of Frida Kahlo's greatest accomplishment was in opening a wider dialogue on cultural awareness and sexuality, particularly from a feminine perspective as during her time, very few of her paintings conformed to the more male dominated art world. Her compelling paintings heighten our own vulnerabilities about life in general, reaching out to people who have known similar pain and suffering, or intriguing those who can only imagine what it would have been like to live her life. One of her more memorable quotes was, "I paint my own reality. The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to, and I paint whatever passes through my head without any other consideration."  She painted what was in her head and that was her reality and her art.

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