BY UNS AL-SHABIB BABAN
I was newly married so it was not that difficult to convince my husband to accompany me to a modern art exhibition back in Baghdad. I loved it all; especially one painting that to me had an impressive strength, a beautiful composition, and was a celebration of colors. Are you serious? My husband snapped. How could you call these random dribbles a piece of Art? A five year old can do a better job than this….!
Ever since that day, I worked hard to get my husband to appreciate modern art. Now, when he’s asked about a modern painting, he just says…. Huh!
Today I will try to shed some light on the subject of Modern ART hoping you’ll do better than my husband 🙂
The best definition of Fine Arts is: “Fine Arts aim to produce objects that are beautiful and provide intellectual stimulation”. But, between you and me, with some modern art, Beautiful is optional.
Most of us love classical art because it’s easier to comprehend. It depicts what the artist sees which is probably what we see too.
With abstract and surreal art things are different. They sometimes give the impression that they’re done by aliens.
Pablo Picasso, the father of Contemporary Art explains it as follows;
“I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them”
Abstract art does not attempt to represent reality. But that does not mean it has to be vague. There is a way to “read” an abstract piece of art, just like a more realistic one. Knowing about the history and progression of art can help us understand contemporary art more clearly. And that basic understanding can take us a long way! I have tried to summarize the last two centuries of art history into a few basic facts and movements:
Until the mid to late 19th century virtually all visual art was completely representational. In fact, the greatest artists’ ambition was to create such perfect illusions of reality that their own work was invisible. But don’t forget that art in those days mostly served the purposes of religious dogma, commissioned portraits, and historical commemorations. Art was a slave to the governing authority and high society because after all an artist had to make a living.
Leonardo da Vinci- Mona Lisa or La Giaconda
During the late 19th century things started to change. Technology had already swept into the world. The invention of the camera changed the way we looked at art because the camera could capture and treasure the valuable moments for you. It could record the moment’s light, the wind, the reflections; the smiles… even the feelings…
That is when the new art movements began to emerge. There was a need for more. An exact camera representation did not satisfy the artistic expressions anymore.
The first modern movement ”Impressionism” was born In 1870
Claude Monet- The Sunrise
This painting was the first step away from pure Realism. It’s called “The Sunrise”, by the famous artist Claude Monet. Look at the informal and spontaneous brushstrokes that got him insulted by critics. At that time this was a scandal for a famous artist. They accused him of only being capable of a mere “Impression of a sunrise”. Thus the name <Impressionism>
Monet and fellow impressionists like Auguste Renoir and Edgar Degas, emphasized the importance of the artist’s way of seeing the world over a strict depiction of it. They studied the effects of light, colour, perspective, and time on a scene rather than just its exact representation. They introduced outdoor painting and nature scenes which were not known before.
Post-Impressionism, (circa 1885): The movement was led by Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh. Each had a different view but they all rebelled against the limits that still existed in Impressionism. They used exaggerated colors, rougher brush strokes and more freedom from rules to bring Impressionism to a new level.
Vincent Van Gogh- Olive Trees
Edvard Munch-The scream
Starting in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century, a set of artists around the world including Edvard Munch, Marc Chagall, and Paul Klee began infusing their paintings with explicit moods and emotions. The goal of painting was to depict the mind-set of the artist at the time of painting, sometimes completely separated from reality.
Cubism, (circa 1910): As the 20th century progressed, the Perspective of the Artist himself became dominant. These alternative ways of seeing things led to other movements such as Cubism which was founded by Pablo Picasso and others like George Braque as an attempt to show objects and scenes in the way that the human mind perceives them. Concentrating on Picasso here may help me prove that Modern Art Movements are genuine artistic expressions. I’m using Picasso for a reason. He was an excellent Realistic painter, a child prodigy. Look at his early paintings; This beautiful anatomy of a male torso.
Pablo Picasso age 12 or 13, Study of a Torso- 1893
Picasso- Portrait of his Mother (1896)
Or this portrait of his mother. Look at the lighting of the face, the complexion, the texture of the blouse. Both are done with fine brush strokes, the classic technique. This lady makes me want to share her thoughts and comfort her if needed.
Pablo Picasso- Embrace
Then Picasso’s work evolved towards post Impressionism…This painting is done with rough brush strokes and primary colours. But you can certainly feel the passion between these two people can’t you?
Then, may I say, he slipped into his cubism period. Picasso’s Cubism paintings intentionally distorted colour and shape for the sake of more truthful representations of the world as the artist saw it. But here, I’ll tell you a secret, when I was about ten years old; I saw this dreary painting and decided that Picasso was completely cuckoo, a mental case, because he painted the face of a dead woman to scare children.
Did you know that Picasso was also a great sculptor? He revolutionised the history of sculpture through a lifelong commitment to constant reinvention. I was lucky to be able to visit his very rich sculpture exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York just three months ago. It was mind-blowing.
Pablo Picasso, Bull, ca. 1958
Surrealism (circa 1925)
Salvador Dali- Sleep
Salvador Dali- The persistence of memory
Surrealism was an important milestone in modern art. Artists painted unnerving, illogical scenes with photographic precision. They attempted to describe the unconscious mind in surprising and unexpected ways.
These are masterpieces by Salvador Dali. He could easily paint the world as is with perfect precision but instead chose to paint his own thoughts and interpretations. They provide the intellectual stimulation mentioned before!!!
Abstract Expressionism (circa 1945)
Willem de Kooning- The Excavation
Around the mid-20th century a movement called Abstract Expressionism was born. Paintings focused on the action of painting and the interaction of the artist with his materials. They can have that “childish” quality to the untrained eye, but believe me, they are real artistic contemplations.
Minimalism & 21st Century Pluralism
The next generation of artists started a more “hard-edged” movement known as Minimalism. Using the minimum means to achieve the maximum effect. Among the most famous is this painting by Mondrian
Piet Mondrian – Color and Line
and this one by Ellsworth Kelly.
This movement and the ones preceding it produced the seeds for many other movements with influences reaching the artists of today; the Pop Art, Conceptual Art, Performance Art and many more.
Today’s Art often integrates new technologies (digital media, 3d printing, and others) and uses unconventional materials. It’s a myriad of different styles and techniques which is why it’s often referred to as “Pluralism”.
José Manuel Merello- Blue fantasy
Although I hope that by now you have a better idea, if you still don’t understand any of this, you are not alone. A critic with a great sense of humor once said this about the modern art movements:
Art became what artists saw inside them, rather than outside. Impressionism was the world seen through a couple of glasses of Red Wine. Expressionism was impressionism after the whole bottle. Surrealism was when the room started spinning, and modern conceptual art is the throwing-up stage.
Lynne Taetzsch – Applauding the Harvest of Life
All joking aside, to appreciate Art, you need to observe more Art and to observe it thoroughly. When you look at a Modern Art piece please keep an open mind. Your mind should be in a receptive state
Hadie Shafie- Escape into Life
Visit art exhibitions. You can get yourself on the mailing list of some of the Art galleries in your town so that you would be notified whenever there is an exhibition. Just go and look at the paintings. Try to have a dialogue with the piece. Search for Emotions. Not every work of art will grab your eye or emotions at first sight. You have to give these artworks some time. And, if a piece just doesn’t speak to you, that is ok. You don’t like it, and that’s perfectly normal. Tastes are subjective. When it comes to interpreting a piece of art, there is no right or wrong. It’s your imagination that works and it can never be wrong. Artists understand that and they love to hear other opinions. That adds to their artistic experiences.
Akira Kamayama- A Visual Essay on Gutai
What is important is how YOU FEEL about the artwork not how it looks. No one has the right to judge your evaluation. Keep that in mind. You are the Master of this game. So just enjoy it …