After World War II, Abstract Expressionism began to take hold on the American art scene with Jackson Pollock as its champion. It finally seemed as if Pollock’s art was “America’s triumphant catching-up with the great modern tradition” of Paris. While many authors and critics point to Pollock’s style as the contributor to the rise of Abstract Expressionism, it is also important to take postwar American culture into consideration when thinking about Pollock and his status as an American hero. Pollock’s hyper-masculine persona and his status as a hero fit the needs of postwar America and made him the champion of Abstract Expressionism.
Autumn Rhythm became known as one of Pollock’s more famous drip paintings because of its commanding large presences of black, white, and tan. Large in scale, the painting seems to be its own life force as it requires interaction from the viewer. Because there was no representation, the work is timeless allowing for viewers to connect readily with it and not feel alienated. In a time when America was recovering from a terrible war and gender and sexual identity was being tested and shaken, a painting like Autumn Rhythm would be a comfort to the viewer as they are a very simple expression of a collective thought shared by Americans. Pollock is taking on the role of American hero by looking inward to find an identity that can be expressed and shared by all.
By laying the canvas on the floor, Pollock was given unlimited access to the canvas and a lot of freedom of movement. Pollock found it satisfactory to walk around and stand over the canvas. He also felt that pouring technique was extremely liberating in that everything from his unconsciousness (his life, his beliefs, his feelings) was freed onto the canvas. As Pollock began to produce more and more drip paintings, they began to grow in size to the point where they were confrontational with the viewer.
At the end of World War II, there was a void in American culture that no soldier or politician was able to fill. America needed a cultural hero and they found it in the avant-garde artist, Jackson Pollock. Pollock filled America’s requirements of a hero because he remained true to his American West roots and allowed them to carry through to his art. Pollock’s hyper-masculine performances were his way of proving that his art and career was not effeminate and that he could fit into the American postwar “Marlboro Man’ ideal of masculinity. The massive scale of many if his drip paintings was associated with Pollock’s masculine assertiveness and his status as an American hero.
When World War I broke out in August 1914, German artist Otto Dix was 22 years old and studying at the Dresden Academy of Art. Dix’s works alternated between landscapes and city scenes, but the horrors of World War I proved to be his greatest subject matter. More so than his contemporaries, Dix used his memories of trench warfare to make uncompromisingly harsh images. His fifty plate series Der Krieg (The War)focuses on occurrences common to service in the trenches and became a way for him to speak to others about his experiences during the war. The most reproduced print from the series is Stormtroopers Advance under Cover of Gas.
In this print, Dix has portrayed five soldiers, their faces covered by their gas masks, advancing on an enemy line through No Man’s Land while under a gas attack. Despite the fact that these men appear inhuman, they materialize as even more menacing as they move in and out of the haze created by the gas. The landscape they move through consists of mud, shelled trees, barbed wire, and dead bodies. The landscape is heavily shaded and dense and seems to consume the men’s bodies which shows that it took sheer effort and strength to navigate the trenches and No Man’s Land. The shelled tree on the right looks just as dangerous as any of the modern weapons used during combat due to its pointed limbs representing a demonic pitchfork. The soldier on the far left has gotten snagged on a line of barbed wire representing the many ways in which a soldier’s body came under attack.
World War I became the first event where medical professionals observed and treated soldiers suffering from war neurosis, or as it is now known, post-traumatic stress disorder. Many medical professionals denied that the root cause of war neurosis was the horrible experiences faced in the trenches and instead insisted that the cause of symptoms was due to a soldier’s will which made soldiers blameworthy for their own illnesses. This idea that it was will not experience that caused soldier to suffer from war neurosis made it increasingly difficult for soldiers to come to terms with their prewar selves and postwar selves. In order for a solder to reconcile the two different identities, it needed to be taken into consideration that a soldier’s war identity was made outside the normal social experience and that the male body was subjected to experiences unfathomable to civilians. For many, especially those young men like Otto Dix who entered the war under the age of twenty-five, war experience made them what they are and they now had to learn how to translate that experience into a language to be understood by civilians.
Dix’s use of shading mixed with aquatint gives these bodies monumentality and asserts their presence in the viewers’ space. The solidarity of the bodies is what allows them to not be consumed by the realities of war. This print represents bodies in active combat where there was no time for fear and bodies ran off of pure adrenaline. Dix is rendering a militarized male body, one that fits in with society’s standards of masculinity. But when soldiers wore their masks they lost all signs of humanity and Dix uses the masks here to show that soldiers had to alter their bodies and therefore their identities and literally become inhuman in order to live up to the masculine standards of heroism imposed upon them. It is prints like this that help the soldier confront war experience as the process of being made strange and fill the gaps between his prewar self and postwar self because he can come to terms with the exact experiences of the war that changed him.
Velázquez’s Forge of the Vulcan is a large oil on canvas of the god Apollo visiting Vulcan within his forge, or blacksmith workshop. Now found in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, the painting represents the moment when Apollo tells Vulcan that Venus, his wife, is having an affair with Mars. Vulcan, who is crafting weapons in his workshop, stands to the right of Apollo, who can be recognized by the crown of laurel around his head. The other blacksmiths in the forge stop in the middle of their work due to the surprise of both the appearance of Apollo and the news he is delivering. Forge of the Vulcan is noteworthy because it marks a change in Velázquez’s painting style. The change was influenced by his journey through Italy as well as a visit from Peter Paul Rubens to the Spanish court in 1628. The colors used and rendering of the bodies and the forge shows the influence of Italian painting on Velázquez. However, his use of ordinary people represents the influence of his Spanish training.
Velázquez chose to center the subject of his painting on the moment the Vulcan hears the news of Venus’ infidelity from Apollo. For this reason, Apollo is swathed in an orange toga to mark his importance. This bold use of coloring by Velázquez shows influence from Italian Renaissance painting where painters like Michelangelo and Titian used bold and striking colors in their paintings. The forge is dominated by gray and brown colors but is punctuated by bursts of orange and yellow from the fire and the hot metal being made into weapons and armor. The contrast between the dusty brown forge and the bright fire and toga heightens the drama of the scene. Visually, the orange-yellow colors move the viewers’ eye across the canvas. The bright yellow halo around Apollo’s head also contrasts sharply with the dark surroundings further marking Apollo as important within the scene. Apollo’s gaze is directed at Vulcan which causes the viewers’ eye to move from Apollo toward Vulcan, emphasizing these two figures as the center of the action. The use of striking colors inspired by the Italian masters helps draw the viewers’ eye across the canvas while also emphasizing the important people.
Forge of the Vulcan shows Velázquez’s interest in nude figures and he renders them in a classical style influenced by Italian painters. The figures are large and muscular and portrayed in such a way as to show off their bodies. The dynamic positions of the men’s bodies speak to the dramatic gesture common in Italian Renaissance art and emphasize the shock and surprise felt by Vulcan and the other men in the workshop. However, these bodies are of contemporary men and the myth takes place within the human realm: in a blacksmith’s workshop that could be found in Spain. While the bodies are muscular, the figures are not idealized in the same way the Italian masters idealized their portrayals of the gods. Vulcan is portrayed as a blacksmith, surrounded by tools typically found in a forge. He stands in contrapposto, but has the face of an ordinary man. Vulcan is not idealized and is quite ugly. He only stands out from the other figures as Vulcan due to Apollo’s gaze. The same can be said for Apollo who also looks like an ordinary man and is only marked as a god by the halo and bright orange toga. While the toga falls in such a way to show as much of his body as possible, he is still representative of a contemporary man. The surrounding men are arranged in different positions so Velázquez can illustrate his mastery of the nude body. The man in the foreground with his back to the viewer is also positioned in contrapposto while the man on the far right is bent over armor with his muscular leg extended out in front of him. The men are clothed in a simple brown cloth that allow their bodies to be visible but also marks them as everyday blacksmiths.
After his visit to Italy, the style of Velázquez painting began to change. But even with an interest in dramatic gesture, space, the nude figure, and color learned from the Italian masters, Velázquez still found ways to make these Italian influences his own by incorporating characteristics of Spanish painting into his works. Forge of Vulcan is one such work where characteristics from both Italy and Spain can be found.
The Oath of the Horatii was David’s first commission for the Academy and was inspired by an event in Roman history. David tells the heroic story of the Horatii brothers (three men on the left) who were chosen by the Romans to challenge the Curiatii from the neighboring town of Alba. As they receive their weapons from their father, the brothers are swearing to defend their land or die. One of the women on the right is Camilla who is engaged to one of the Curiatii brothers posed to fight while one of the Curiatii sisters, Sabina, is married to a Horatii brother and resting her head upon Camilla. The women cling to each other in grief knowing they will either lose a brother or a husband. A nurse shelters the children from the scene, but a curious little boy takes a peek at the dramatics. Despite the heartbreak, the men stand steadfast in their oath to defend Rome. Dramatic scenes such as this were popular among French viewers as there was an interest in art that could reform public morality and empower the nation.
Set inside an empty stone hall, the painting is divided into three sections by the three stone arches in the background and is flooded by light from a hidden window on the left. The light glitters on the swords held by the father in the middle section and bounces of the helmets worn by the brothers. The three brothers stand firmly together, their arms outstretched towards the swords. The bodies of the men are muscular and energetic showing David’s talent in portraying the body. Their vigorous bodies stand in contrast to that of the women, who are slumped on the floor and are all sinuous curves and no muscle. The men wear bold colors of red and blue while the women appear more muted. The contrasts between the bodies show not only represent the differences between the roles of men in women in society, but also the two sides to war: honor and celebration on one side, anguish and misfortune on the other. With the depiction of the bodies and the classical subject matter, The Oath of the Horatii became an international sensation and a champion of the neoclassical style.
David poses a tough moral question within The Oath of the Horatii: does an individual’s allegiance lay ultimately with the family or the nation? While David has clearly expressed his answer with the determined and resolute faces of the brothers, he not so subtly reminds us of the costs when nation is placed over family. The message that patriotism trumps all other things has gotten The Oath of the Horatii to be attributed with the start of the French Revolution which took place four years after this painting was completed.