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European art evolved as the concept of “Europe” and its culture changed over time—from the beginning of early Christian-era iconography to the changes in visual expression influenced by shifting empires and tribal migrations. The Renaissance and its retro-focus on classical Greece and Rome brought emphasis from the divine to the individual, until, in the modern era, art needed no ulterior meaning or external reference.
- Early Christian Art
- Catacomb Painting and Early Christian Iconography
- Constantine, the Church, and the Empire
- Tribal Migration
- Medieval Art, East and West
- Eastern Medieval Art
- Western Medieval Art
- Renaissance and Baroque Art
- The Modern World
- Nineteenth Century
- Early Twentieth Century
- Later Twentieth-Century Developments
- Europe in New York
The history of European art is related to the idea of Europe itself, an idea that has been in transition during the twenty-first century. Although the ever-evolving boundaries of modern Europe were not delineated until the nineteenth century, well before that people may have considered themselves “European,” and important artistic activity occurred on the European continent and the island land masses associated with it. The evolution of European art is characterized by the process of fusion and transmutation, much as the political entities of modern Europe developed from encounters between different migrating cultures. The proliferation of Christianity had an important impact on the development of a specifically European art and on its distinctiveness in world cultures, at least until the nineteenth century.
This article focuses on five historical periods: art of the early Christian era (c. 200–400 CE); art of the migrating tribes (400–800 CE); art during the Middle Ages (500–1400); art during the Renaissance and Baroque (1400–1800); and art of the so-called modern world (1800–2000). Although this discussion begins around the start of the common era and is inextricably bound up with the rise and dissemination of Christianity, important art was produced on the European continent during the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods (cave paintings and sculpture in the former, sculpture and architecture in the latter).
Early Christian Art
The most significant achievement of the early Christian period was the forging of a new iconographic language that expressed the tenets of Christianity from a variety of Mediterranean antecedents: the Greco- Roman world, the Old Testament, and Egyptian art. Christians excelled at appropriation to communicate their message, and the visual tropes that were developed at that time persisted through the later periods of European Art.
Catacomb Painting and Early Christian Iconography
The first art that can be associated with Christianity and the vocabulary of Christian signs was created in the Roman catacombs around 270 CE, when Christianity was one among many cults within the Roman Empire. The catacombs were underground burial sites, used by many sects as well as by Christians; a network of chambers and compartments had been dug under Rome and particularly its outlying areas. Although they were not places of worship, their walls were often covered with imagery that marked the religious affiliation of the deceased.
The chamber devoted to Saint Peter and Saint Marcellinus in the Catacomb of Priscilla (fourth century CE) provides a good example of how diverse sources were melded together to symbolize Christian resurrection. An image of the Good Shepherd, drawn from classical iconography, occupies the center of the ceiling. In a Christian context, this image represents Christ leading his flock to salvation. Images of salvation drawn from Hebrew scripture surround the central image, such as Jonah being spat out by the whale or Noah relaxing under a vine and fig tree after the flood. New Testament expressions of salvation through Christian sacraments such as the Baptism and the Eucharist (Last Supper) flank the central image of the Good Shepherd in a similar configuration in the Catacomb of Callixtus (second and third centuries CE). In one of the first depictions of the Virgin Mary and the Christ child, a woman nurses her child next to a haloed male figure, most likely Balaam, who points to a star over her head; the image, located in the chamber of the Velatio (veiled woman) in the Catacomb of Priscilla, draws upon Egyptian depictions of Isis suckling Horus.
Constantine, the Church, and the Empire
In 312, on the night before the battle of the Milvian Bridge, the Roman emperor Constantine allegedly dreamt of an insignia emblazoned with the entwined letters chi and rho, the first two letters of the word Christ in Greek, and the Latin phrase in hoc signo vinces (in this sign you will win). While carrying the sign of Christ into battle the following day, he defeated his rival Maxentius. Thus began a series of enactments whereby Christianity went from a persecuted cult to a state religion in a period of ten years. Constantine was a pivotal figure. He came to power as a Roman emperor, became the first Christian emperor, and ultimately was the first Byzantine emperor as well. The visual depictions that were formulated during his reign had an important impact on the development of European art for the next 1,500 years.
When Christianity became the state religion of Rome, the power of the empire was placed behind the church, thus stimulating the construction of large-scale buildings. Classical structures were transformed to fulfill the needs of Christian worship, with two architectural forms becoming dominant. The longitudinal form, derived from the Roman basilica but revised to be oriented from east to west along its vertical axis, became the format for the Eucharistic church, which was designed to hold masses of people: Saint Peter’s, Saint John of the Lateran, and Saint Paul Outside the Walls. The centralized form, derived from baths and tombs, became associated with baptisteries and martyria (building dedicated to and containing the relics of martyrs).
The power of the empire was also reflected in the developing iconography, particularly as images of Christ portrayed as a Good Shepherd gave way to images with imperial connotations. The depiction of Christ as emperor first appears in Constantinian basilicas of the fourth century; a mosaic in the apse of Santa Pudenziana (390 CE), for example, shows him bearded and enthroned, surrounded by his apostles. The nave of Saint Paul Outside the Walls (385 CE) also contains imperial imagery: the wall surface at the juncture between nave and apse is treated like a triumphal arch (c. 450 CE), with Christ—in an imago clipeata (framed portrait) at its apex—surrounded by the evangelist symbols, the twenty-four elders of the apocalypse, and images of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.
In 332 CE, to escape the disruption of intensifying tribal invasions, Constantine moved the seat of the empire to the ancient city of Byzantium on the Bosphorus, which resulted in the division of the Christian world into two empires, East and West. The Eastern Empire remained continuous from Constantine’s era until the sack of Constantinople (now Istanbul) by the Ottoman Empire in 1456. Art forms became stabilized and persisted over those years as in a time capsule. The Western Empire went through a decline that took centuries to reverse. As Christianity moved from its Mediterranean base to outposts in northern Europe, the integration of diverse sources influenced artistic development.
In the age of migration a new imagery developed from the melding of northern tribal stylistic motifs with the Mediterranean structures that had become identified with Christianity. Indigenous northern styles were based upon a nonrepresentational visual vocabulary used in decorating portable secular objects. Often the size and complexity of the object reflected the status of its owner, as seen in the so-called Tara Brooch (c. 725 CE). A large ring brooch made from an assemblage of materials—its every surface, both front and back, is divided into sections teeming with complex, tightly entwined, boundary-pushing interlace. Even the slim vertical fastener is decorated, its finial a dragon’s head with two bosses (button-like projections) for eyes.
The Book of Kells, a gospel manuscript—probably written and illustrated by monks on Scotland’s island of Iona during the latter part of the eighth century CE, brought to the monastery in Kells, Ireland, in the late ninth century, and described in the twelfth century by Giraldus Cambrensis as “the work of angels”— reveals a similar decorative concept applied to a Christian object. A richly decorated page, in which the first words of the text are embedded in a lavishly wrought design covering the entire surface, introduces each gospel. The Chi Rho Iota page (beginning the story of Christ’s birth from the Book of Matthew) resembles a painted version of the Tara Brooch, in which the large forms of the first Greek letters of Christ’s name (XPI, or chri) have been divided into sections, crammed with interlace, and visually “locked” to additional decorative motifs. A keen observer, however, notices human and animal forms hidden among the spirals and paisley-like shapes; a wonderful bit of realism appears in the lower left-hand side: two cats crouch, ready to attack a pair of mice about to seize a Eucharistic wafer.
The Book of Kells also incorporates classical elements. Borrowing from the late Roman practice of preceding texts with portraits of their authors, the manuscript includes portraits of each gospel author sitting under an elaborately decorated arch. The book contains early northern attempts at creating visual narrative, such as the page depicting the arrest of Christ. Finally, this manuscript also reveals a fusion with Egyptian sources, probably related to the eremitic monastic tradition. The image of the Virgin holding the Christ child emphasizes the tender connection of the pair, as seen in images of Isis suckling Horus, rather than the rigidity of the Hodegetria (literally, “she who shows the way”) frontal view, in which Virgin most often holds Jesus in her left arm and points toward him with her right hand, a pose ubiquitous in early Byzantine art.
Medieval Art, East and West
Two differing artistic traditions co-existed during the Middle Ages, corresponding to the division of the Roman Empire into East and West. Although they developed separately, there were occasional points of contact between them and they both exerted influences on the art of the following period.
Eastern Medieval Art
The major division in Byzantine art distinguishes works produced before the period of iconoclasm (early Byzantine art) and works produced after (middle and late Byzantine art). The emperor Justinian (527–565 CE) viewed himself as a second Constantine, and his reign is referred to as the “Golden Age” of Byzantine art. The court church of Justinian, the Hagia Sophia (537 CE, “Holy Wisdom”) in Constantinople, designed by Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus, brilliantly merges centralized and longitudinal architectural forms and embodies the aesthetics of this first period. According to Justinian’s court historian, Procopius, the vast, undulating space, its interior covered with gold mosaics and multicolored marble, seemed to radiate its own light. The dome, an engineering marvel supported on pendentives (spherical triangles) and punctuated by a ring of small windows, seemed to hover above the central space—in Procopius’ words, “as if suspended from the heavens by a golden chain.”
The period of iconoclasm (726–843 CE) involved a theological and cultural dispute concerning the nature of images, their veneration, and their relation to the godhead. Its resolution in the mid-ninth century resulted in a formula that remained operational until the mid-fifteenth century, when Constantinople was conquered by Islamic forces. The middle Byzantine church was built around a domed, centralized plan and was decorated with very restricted images arranged hierarchically. The highest areas were limited to images of Christ; the Virgin and child could be depicted in the apsidal area; the lower regions were limited to images relating to the liturgical feast days. This approach to decoration was prevalent not only in Constantinople, but in Greece, the Holy Land, and the Balkans.
During the latter period of Byzantine art, the image of the Virgin and child underwent an important transformation. Icons that used the older Hodgetria pose—in which the Virgin points to Christ as the way to salvation, continued to be produced—but the image of the “Madonna of Tenderness” served to express the intense emotional relationship between mother and child and exerted an important influence on images that were later developed during the Italian Renaissance.
During the Middle Ages the Eastern and Western empires were parallel universes, for the most part separate, but with numerous points of contact and interpenetrations. For example, an Ottonian (Germanic) king married a Byzantine princess in the late tenth century, which resulted in the increased use of Byzantine artistic styles and motifs. After 1096, crusaders to the Holy Land encountered many examples of Byzantine artistic production, which they brought back to the West. (Unfortunately, they also conquered and occupied Constantinople for just over fifty years, from 1204 to 1261 CE.) The city of Venice was a crossroads between the West and the East, as seen in the Church of San Marco (1071 CE) with its five Byzantine-inspired domed compartments, each covered in golden mosaics.
Western Medieval Art
Art and learning in northern Europe from the ninth through the twelfth centuries were practiced in monastic centers that were often supported by temporal rulers. Beginning with the reign of Charlemagne (742–814; reigned as Frankish king 768–814 and as emperor of the West 800–814), who had himself declared Holy Roman Emperor in the tradition of Constantine and Justinian, there were several so-called renascences, periods where the body of knowledge and the artistic styles of the classical world were consciously reinterpreted as models for contemporary practice.
The major achievement of the Western Middle Ages was the development of large architectural forms, the Romanesque pilgrimage church and the Gothic cathedral. Writing in the middle of the eleventh century, the monk Raoul Glaber described how the world began to be covered with a “white mantle of churches” after the year 1000 when, contrary to popular expectation, it had not been destroyed during the second coming. Whether or not for millennial reasons, during the eleventh century, western Europeans began to consolidate and expand their knowledge of construction methods. By the thirteenth century, the Western cathedral had been developed, primarily in France but also in England, Germany, and Italy.
The cathedral dedicated to the Virgin Mary at Chartres, southwest of Paris, provides an excellent example of how cathedrals (literally, bishops’ seats) were encyclopedic embodiments of human knowledge. In its architecture, Chartres illustrates the most important advances of the period: how to build a tall building with a stone vault, for which the flying buttress was developed as a means of transferring the load from the interior to the exterior of the building through the logical application of the bay system of construction. This method allowed the building to be suffused with light, whose significance was metaphorical, the divine light modulated on Earth, emphasized by stained-glass windows that depict both sacred and secular subjects.
Monumental column statues—depicting nineteen of the twenty-two Old Testament figures said to be precursors of Christ—flank each of three portals, marking the passage from secular to sacred space; along with coordinated high-relief sculptures set into arches over the doorways, they communicate a message of salvation through Christ while at the same time evoking the unity of human history and knowledge. Chartres was a center of learning, and such classical concepts as the trivium and quadrivium (curricula including, respectively: grammar, rhetoric, and logic; astronomy, geometry, arithmetic, and music) are also expressed on its surface, as is the passage of human time through the depiction of the signs of the zodiac and the labors of the months. Thus the building reflects the cosmos, the establishment of the Heavenly City of Jerusalem on Earth.
Renaissance and Baroque Art
Although there had been several smaller rebirths of classical culture during the Middle Ages, the ultimate one took place during the period (formally) called the Renaissance, when learned people made a concerted attempt to copy and reinterpret Greco-Roman texts and images with greater authenticity. This movement was self-defining and it was centered in Italy, although it was experienced in other geographical locals. Two important artistic developments emerged during the Renaissance: an emphasis on the human rather than on the divine, and the ability to make illusionistic depictions of the real world. Whereas in the Middle Ages the church was the major patron, the Renaissance, in concert with the emphasis on the individual, fostered the rise of the wealthy, aristocratic patron.
There is a substantial overlap between the late Gothic and the Renaissance periods: the tendency to make images that reflected actual human interactions can be seen as early as the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Nonetheless, the Renaissance is characterized by a conceptual shift, where, following the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius, “man” became the measure of all things, although the cosmos was still given divine authorship. The painting by Masaccio (1401–c. 1427) of the Expulsion from Paradise for the Brancacci Chapel, Church of Santa Maria del Carmine (Florence, 1426 CE) provides a good example of this change in consciousness. Here, the first humans are shown in a state of utter desolation and abjection— Adam covers his face, Eve lets out a wail—as they are forced to walk the face of the Earth in punishment for their disobedience. During the next hundred years the tendency to create accurate and convincing images of the human body became progressively more important; by the early sixteenth century Michelangelo (1475–1564) described his process of sculpting as “liberating” the human form that was “hiding” in the stone.
Likewise, during the fifteenth century artists sought to create pictorial illusions, conceiving the picture surface as a “window,” a continuation of actual space. The ability to create illusionistic space was dependent on the mathematical discovery, by Brunelleschi (1377–1446) and Alberti (1404–1472), of single-point perspective, a method of accurately representing on a two-dimensional surface the spatial relationships of human vision, characterized by the convergence of parallel lines at a single vanishing point on the horizon. Although for many years artists had used an “empirical” perspective in which spatial relationships were approximated, mathematical single-point perspective was first employed in the early fifteenth century by artists such as Masaccio in his Trinità fresco (Florence, c. 1425).
Masaccio’s northern contemporaries, such as Jan van Eyck (1395–1441), were less interested in mathematical construction, but these artists excelled in using atmospheric perspective (the progressive graying and loss of detail at the horizon) to communicate the sense of deep space. By the next century both methods had become standard painting procedure. Works centered around the papal chambers in the Vatican, such as Michelangelo’s paintings on the Sistine Chapel ceiling (1510) or Raphael’s on the walls of the Stanza della Signatura (1511), feature expansive vistas created through spatial illusionism.
The emphasis on verisimilitude that developed during the Renaissance remained a dominant artistic feature for the next four hundred years. During the Baroque period Caravaggio (1573–1610) used stark contrasts of light and dark to create intensely dramatic works, and Rembrandt (1606–1669) explored profound psychological states. Pictorial illusionism has become so normalized and naturalized that, even now, it is difficult to realize that those artistic criteria are relatively unique in human history, and that they are not the sole criteria of artistic skill and sophistication. Furthermore, a hierarchy of value developed in the post-Renaissance—Western “high art” tradition, where subjects drawn from history, myth, or the Bible were considered to be more “important” than others, such as landscapes, everyday scenes (“genre paintings”), or still life.
The Modern World
During the nineteenth century artists became interested in painting the actual without needing to imbue it with ulterior meaning. This lack of interest in ulterior meaning continued into the early twentieth century, when many artists also became interested in showing multiple perspectives, and culminated in an art that needed no external reference at all.
Painting for its own sake was a goal of Impressionism, which began in France around 1870 and persisted for about twenty years. Like earlier nineteenth-century painters, the Impressionists were interested in depicting the specifics of the real world, but, pushing the envelope further, they attempted to make images that appeared to catch the transitory nature of perception.
The Impressionists took two basic approaches in their desire to capture the fleeting moment. The work of Claude Monet (1840–1926), who was particularly interested in depicting the effects of light, exemplifies the first. In his Impression: Sunrise (1872), which gave its name to the movement when a journalist belittled the painting for its seeming lack of polish, or his Sailboats at Argentueil (1873), he used a broken brushstroke and patchily applied color to express the shimmer of light refracted in water. In the 1880s he began to paint in series, to observe the same scene at different times of day under different weather conditions, as in his many images of grain (or hay) stacks under the differing effects of sunrise, sunset, full sun, haze, rain, and snow. In the series depicting the water lilies in his garden at Giverny, on which he continued to work until his death in 1926, the desire to capture the ephemeral nature of perceived light is carried to its extreme as all referential objects dissolve into fragments of color.
The other approach, practiced by more artists, sought to depict the vagaries of “modern life,” particularly the life of the modern city with its hustle and bustle of strangers in streets, cafés, and dance halls. Camille Pissarro (1830–1903) painted the boulevards of Paris seen from above, the traffic and people indicated by specks of paint. Edgar Degas (1834–1917) and Auguste Renoir (1841–1919) painted dancers caught in motion and people in cafés pausing in middrink. This way of seeing was particularly gendered, with women artists such as Mary Cassatt (1845– 1926) and Berthe Morisot (1841–1895) concentrating on the interactions between women and children in their homes. The invention of photography in the first half of the nineteenth century influenced painters; Degas’s image Place de la Concorde: Vicomte Lepic (1876), for instance, uses photographic compositional devices such as cropping. Degas and others were also aware of motion studies by photographers such as Eadweard Muybridge.
Japanese prints exerted another important influence on painters in both content and structure. With the opening up of Japan to the West in 1859, Western artists were introduced to the ukiyo-e (floating world) prints that presented images of ephemeral, daily human actions. Many painters sought to emulate the pictorial structure of Japanese woodcuts, which consisted of flattened planes and oblique entrances into the compositional space. Mary Cassatt was especially successful at capturing the effects of japonisme in her series of colored etchings achieved in the early 1890s, showing women going about their daily tasks, such as writing letters and bathing their children.
Early Twentieth Century
During the early twentieth century artists challenged the spatial system that had been devised during the Renaissance, seeking alternative approaches to representing three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface. The interest in showing multiple perspectives can be related to scientific developments of the early twentieth century that emphasized the reality of phenomena not readily apparent to the naked eye.
Cubist artists wanted to create a picture surface that reflected the active experience of seeing, where the eye is not static but rather composes an image by integrating myriad simultaneously perceived points of view. (“Cubism” was a pejorative term given to the movement by critics who found it puzzling and disturbing.) Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), Georges Braque (1882–1963), and Juan Gris (1887–1927) were the first to develop works that used this technique; rather than paint a recognizable image of a guitar player, for instance, the artist would depict “facets”—fragments of the guitar’s strings, the player’s fingers, and smoke from his cigarette—which the viewer would need to piece together in order to read the image. The first phase, known as “analytic cubism,” is characterized by a greater use of faceting than in “synthetic” cubism, a slightly later phase, where the multiplicity of the facets is resolved into overlapping planes, as in Picasso’s Three Musicians (1921).
The development of Cubism was important in that it integrated pictorial structure from non-European cultures with European modernism. In Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1906), for example, the face of the figure on the right looks very much like an African mask, with its abstracted features and multiple facets. By the early twentieth century, African art was being exhibited in European ethnological museums, where many artists responded to the abstract pictorial techniques of masks and other sculptures, as well as to their aura of mystery. Ironically, the structures were appropriated without a full understanding of the cultures from which they derived, and without consideration of the works’ meanings within those cultures.
The way of seeing that developed in Cubism was influential in numerous other twentieth-century artistic movements. Artists in both Italy and Russia used related techniques to communicate the experience of physical motion. Umberto Boccioni (1882–1916) and the Futurists sought to communicate the experience of speed. Natalia Goncharova’s (1881–1962) depiction of a bicyclist uses faceting to show the motion of the bicycle wheels and also the experience of the bicyclist as he sees the visual data of the world go by. Later, Goncharova and others attempted to depict moving rays of light, and other artists, such as Sonia Delaunay (1885–1979) and Robert Delaunay (1885–1941), also used faceting to communicate the simultaneity of vision, and to analyze light and its motion as well as the motion of the human eye. These latter artists began to make art that seemed increasingly more abstract, dependent less on perceived reality than on pictorial reality. Based on “pure plastic form” (the tensions that exist between colors and shapes and their placement on a pictorial surface), the work of art was conceived as sufficient to itself, needing no external reference, an extreme effect of the nineteenth-century turn away from content.
An interesting, and seemingly contradictory, extension of the development of artistic abstraction was the renewed desire to blur the boundaries between art and life. Many artists whose work was based on purely formal tensions sought to apply the same principles to the design of everyday objects. In Russia around the time of the Revolution (1917) artists such as Liubov Popova (1889–1924) wanted to make a “new art for a new age,” an art that was based on principles of abstraction but that had application in design—fabrics, dishes, book covers, and stage sets. Sonia Delaunay designed stage sets, fabrics, and even the furnishing of automobiles, commenting, “One day I make a painting, the next I make a dress—there’s no difference.” An entire school dedicated to the universal application of design principles, the Bauhaus, was founded in Germany during the 1920s. Many artists associated with this project—its two founders Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, as well as other members of the avant-garde such as Piet Mondrian—emigrated to the United States during the rise of Nazi Germany, effectively transplanting the International Style and European modernism to the United States.
Later Twentieth-Century Developments
Surrealism, which developed from Dada, was the major European art movement during the interwar years. Born in the cafés across Europe in the later years of World War I, especially the Café Voltaire in Zurich, Dada was a response to the perceived absurdity and destructiveness of the modern world, which its adherents believed called for a similarly irrational approach to art (both visual and literary). The name of the movement itself is ambiguous, possibly deriving from both the Russian word for “rocking horse” and the babbling sounds made by a baby learning to talk. Because it espoused “anti-art” Dada was not a movement per se, nonetheless works from such adherents as Marcel Duchamp became very influential in art of the later twentieth century. Duchamp was especially known for his “readymades,” in which he would take a “found object,” embellish it slightly or not, and then exhibit it as a work of art. Two such examples, both “made” in 1919, are Fountain (a urinal) and the cheap postcard-sized reproduction of Leonardo’s iconic portrait of (Mona) Lisa Gherardini del Giacondo, on which he drew a moustache, a goatee, and the handprinted title, “L.H.O.O.Q.” (The letters, if read quickly in French, phonetically approximate the phrase, elle a chaud au cul, which Duchamp translated colloquially to infer that Mona Lisa’s smile was a reflection of her considerable sexual desire.)
The Surrealists sought to build upon the irrational as the source of artistic imagery and activity, to break from the restrictions of humdrum everyday reality, and to free the mind from convention and logic. André Breton, who wrote two Surrealist “manifestos” (in 1924 and 1927) developed the technique of “automatic writing” as a means of creating a direct line to the unconscious. Breton also wrote Surrealism and Painting, a tract that identified artists whose art was consistent with the two primary goals of the movement: either those like Joan Miró, whose work was mostly abstract and who attempted to find a visual equivalent of automatic writing, and those like Salvador Dalí, who tapped into dream imagery but depicted it realistically so that the unexpected became palpable. Surrealists valued eroticism as a way of accessing the unconscious, and they valorized the “femme-enfant,” the child-woman, who could serve as a muse to the male artist. Several such “muses”— Leonora Carrington, Lee Miller, Dorothea Tanning, and Meret Oppenheim, whose fur-lined tea-cup (Breakfast in Fur, 1936) became the iconic surrealist object—were artists in their own rights, who helped to keep the movement alive for decades after its first appearance. When a number of Surrealist artists fled the Nazi persecution, like Max Ernst (who had been involved with Leonora Carrington while in France but who married Peggy Guggenheim and later Dorothea Tanning), they established residency in New York, and with other émigrés contributed to the transplantation of European modernism to the New World.
Europe in New York
During the 1940s and 1950s New York City, despite its location across the Atlantic, assumed the role that had previously been identified with Paris and became the art capitol of the European art tradition. Abstract Expressionism, the most significant movement of the mid-twentieth century, grew from the Surrealist impulse to exteriorize internal states. Jackson Pollock’s drip technique, in which the control of the artist’s hand was subverted as he danced around a canvas placed on the floor, splattering paint, could be considered a form of automatic writing. During the fifties and sixties in Europe art brut (“raw art”) and arte povera (“poor art”) were prominent, both movements influenced by the anti-art aspects of Dada.
In the latter part of the century it seemed as if the debate accelerated to the point where the purpose of art was being continually redefined every few years, in such movements as Pop Art and its use of everyday imagery, or Minimalism and its total eschewal of representation. The German sculptor and performance artists Joseph Beuys (and other conceptual artists in particular) referred back to Dada, using the stuff of everyday life in their work. Furthermore, art became increasingly more self-referential and began to challenge the hegemony of Western culture and its master narratives through irony, parody, and the blurring of lines between the high and the low, in an attempt to destabilize and decentralize the artistic tradition. These traits became associated with the stance of Postmodernism, a philosophical movement expressed also through architecture and literary criticism.
At the same time, feminists began to retrieve the works of many “lost” women artists, individuals who might have had an impact in their times but who were obscured by the historical narrative. The art historian Linda Nochlin found that many of the women who were able to have artistic careers prior to the nineteenth century—such as, famously, Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1656)—did so because their fathers were artists, which gave them access to the requisite education. This historical recovery work was very significant to women artists during the 1970s and subsequent years, and they began to engage through their art with the historical exclusion of women. Hundreds of volunteers from 1974 to 1979 worked with Judy Chicago on her installation The Dinner Party, to which Chicago “invited” thirty-nine significant female figures (including Hatshepsut, Hildegard von Bingen, and Sacajawea). Three 48-foot banquet tables, configured in a triangle and covered in embroidered textiles and table runners, held individually themed place settings, including custom-designed dinnerware painted with motifs evoking female genitalia and other symbols significant to each guest.
In The French Collection (1991–1997), a series of painted “story quilts,” the Bronx-born painter and writer Faith Ringgold drew on iconic works and figures from European art and culture to present a narrative of “art in the making” in which “history” is either altered by (or infused with) the presence of a fictional African American female artist as a central character. Works such as The Picnic at Giverny, which juxtaposes full-bodied allusions to the paintings of Manet (Dejeuner sur l’herbe) and Monet, function as both playful and serious social commentaries.
In many world cultures art is an intrinsic form of lived experiences whereas in the European art tradition, high art and the daily environment became bifurcated. Unfortunately, despite the aforementioned attempts, during the remainder of the twentieth century, they only became more separated, and in the twenty-first century there seems to be an increasingly unbridgeable gap between artists and their audience.
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