Friday, April 22, 2016

Make it New: Modernist Approaches to Representing the Female in Art

During the early twentieth century, the Industrial Revolution was changing the way the world operated, and the nations entered into two wars that were of a magnitude the globe had never experienced. As a result of the chaos, the technological, scientific, economical, societal, and political spheres began to rapidly evolve. Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams, Einstein proposed his Theory of Relativity, Ford created the assembly line and automobile, and men were becoming billionaires for the first time. In this hectic environment, artists found themselves forced to invent just as quickly in order to keep up. The broad movement became known as modernism, whose central tenet was to “make it new” as the writer Ezra Pound commanded, and the age of “-isms” was born (A Brief History of Modernism). Of the six artists featured in this exhibition, each belonged to a different artistic domain under modernism. In America, Georgia O’Keeffe pioneered Precisionism, while Abraham Walkowitz worked as an American modernist, Jules Pascin experimented in early Expressionism, and Willem de Kooning moved into what would become Action Painting. Meanwhile in Europe, Gustav Klimt helped to usher in the Vienna Secession, becoming known as a Symbolist, and the Ukrainian-born Alexander Archipenko followed the Cubist movement. Though these pieces are similar in subject matter and medium, they each represent the individual’s attempt at advancing the artistic world during a time of chaos and mass innovation. These creations are not completed works of art, but rather sketches that represent the artists’ means of exploration. When viewing these pieces, you are encouraged to consider the similarities and differences among them as you discover how each artist attempted to “make it new.” (A Brief History of Modernism). 

Georgia O’Keeffe, Abstraction IX, 1916, charcoal on paper, 69.278.4.
In Abstraction IX, Georgia O’Keeffe took the graphic style and floral designs of Art Nouveau wallpaper and translated them into a figural depiction. By composing her lines so they call to mind the spirals and tendrils found in botanical life, O’Keeffe created a new approach to figure drawing. Though many scholars have accused the sketch of exhibiting a very feminine style, O’Keeffe did not see the piece as separated from the work of her male contemporaries. She felt that although it was distinct, Abstraction IX was able to compete with the other artists who exhibited works at Stieglitz’ 291 Gallery while simultaneously pushing art into a new direction. In her later works, O’Keeffe continued to develop her style, eventually fully embracing nature as a subject and abandoning human representation all together.

Abraham Walkowitz, Isadora Duncan (6), early 1910’s, ink on paper.
Abraham Walkowitz was so struck by Isadora Duncan’s dancing that he would go on to sketch thousands of images of her over his lifetime. The first few of these drawings (including the one shown) appeared in the same 291 show as O’Keeffe’s Abstraction IX. Like O’Keeffe, Walkowitz depicted his female subject using undulating lines. However, he aimed to embody motion on a 2D surface so that when you looked at the piece you would feel as if you were watching a performance rather than looking at a drawing. The curviness of lines coupled with the repetition of the figure creates the sense of movement that he desired. The artist remarked that Duncan was the epitome of motion and he would continue to redraw her, each time hoping to further enhance that translation of the beauty he saw in her performances unto the page.

Left: Gustav Klimt, Half-Figure of a Young Woman, 1918, graphite on paper.
Right: Detail from The Bride, 1918, oil on canvas. 
Half-Figure of a Young Woman was one of many practice sketches for what would become the piece The Bride. In both the drawing and the painting, the young woman is easily recognizable as such; she is not abstracted like the other representations in this exhibition. Though her eyes are closed, the viewer knows that she is a specific individual. Klimt was very focused on the narrative of women, wishing to document various stages of life from birth to pregnancy, and even the effects of old age; therefore, his want to depict women naturalistically makes sense. This was the artist’s way of innovating. In order to progress within modernism, he strayed from the abstraction his peers were embracing, and preferred to draw more lifelike figures. At a time when figures were becoming less and less distinguishable as such, Klimt’s women would have immediately stood out as distinctive. 

Left: Alexander Archipenko, A Study for Kneeling, 1920, pencil on paper.
Right: Kneelling, 1948, colored and graphite pencil, ink and metallic leaf on paper.
Among other inventions, Alexander Archipenko became known for what he coined “sculpto-painting”—a combination of painting and relief sculpture principles (Karshan). However, before he would start a piece, the artist would first sketch it several times. In Study for Kneeling, Archipenko’s early Cubist influences can be seen through his emphasis of geometric forms and linearity. Yet, in the piece that would eventually become Kneeling, he chose to round out some of the forms and highlight negative space. The sketch portrays the female as more of a combination of shapes rather than a person, and Archipenko’s later disregard for his ideals show that he was constantly revising his own style. 
Jules Pascin, Nude Woman, 1922, graphite and charcoal on paper.
Jules Pascin became most famous for his depictions of the nude or semi-nude female. His Nude Woman from 1922 would be classified under what critics have deemed his “unsexy” period (Werner). Though more naturalistic than many of the other works in this showcase, the hurried pencil marks of the piece and lack of attention to her facial features somewhat distort the figure who is otherwise recognizably female. She is not quite so monstrous looking as de Kooning’s woman, but certainly reflects a more emotional approach to the nude; she was meant to mirror the artist’s own inner turmoil during the last years of his life as he battled alcoholism and depression. Pascin’s work is inventive because it is not a representation of the natural or abstract worlds, but rather a reflection of a mental state.

Willem De Kooning, Untitled, 1966, charcoal on paper.
The seemingly arbitrary strokes in this piece coalesce to form what looks more like a beast than a woman. Untitled is one of twenty-four pieces that makes up what de Kooning referred to as his closed-eye experiment. Like the name implies, the artist shut his eyes while sketching. By drawing blindly, de Kooning sought to essentially remove the work of the eye (which he believed to represent the intellectual) from the piece, and instead wished to fully rely on the hand’s (i.e. the physical realm’s) impulses. His experimentation was an exploration of his potential and autonomy as an artist. The drawing is not so much about naturalistically depicting the subject as it was the process of drawing the figure and discovering the unconscious decisions he could make as the creator. 

No comments:

Post a Comment