Dix and Grosz were influenced by the literature of Ezra Pound, Louis Aragon, and the Dada manifestos by Tristan Tzara, Andre Breton, and poet Hugo Ball, providing the narrative for their work in chaotic word play.
A HISTORY: PART TWO
by Colleen Crary
[Just as with DARK ART HISTORY: PART ONE, we have provided examples of the art discussed on a separate page. Opening this page will give you a new browser window to view the art in while reading the text in this browser window. (It is a pretty large download.) Or you can access each artwork individually by clicking on the cropped thumbnail images in the text. The images may download a little slowly for some folks, but we've made them as "fast" as possible while still preserving respectable quality.]
The Industrial Revolution, WWI, and their aftermaths created hotbeds of extreme political, artistic and literary ideology in major cultural centers throughout the world. Writers, anarchists, artists and revolutionaries lived and worked together, collaborating on manifestos, devising utopian world schemes, using their creative skills to find or enforce order in a world turned upside down. Literature and art became confrontational, revolutionary, "in your face," making the viewer an active participant rather than an onlooker. This is the time of the Russian Revolution, the violent formation of workers' unions, and the world was at war. People as never before in history were on the move: dislocated, uprooted, and emigrated by pressures beyond their control.
Artists and writers returned from serving on the front bringing a new, less optimistic message for humanity: A grim, dark foreboding and revulsion toward mankind, as it was ground under the heel of progress, technology and war at the dawn of the 20th century.
The works of two artists illustrate this transition from late 19th century optimism to 20th century cynicism, GUSTAVE KLIMT (1862-1918) and EGON SCHIELE (1890-1918). Klimt was the leading artist of Art Nouveau. His brilliantly colored images of erotic figures winding into flat areas of decorative motifs are passively beautiful, objects of grace and beauty.
Schiele was a close associate of the elder Klimt, his technique heavily influenced by the more established artist. But Schiele's style is restless and brooding. Klimt's subjects avert their gazes or look beyond the frame with an inward dreaminess. Schiele's subjects stare boldly out of the picture frame, accosting the viewer with harsh directness. Schiele's colors telegraph complex emotion, rather than to create harmony, and his brushwork is rough, heightening the sense of agitation.
Bridging the draftsmanship of Klimnt with the starkness of Schiele is the work of KATHE KOLLWITZ (1867-1945). A printmaker and sculptor, her work is passionate and unflinching in its realism. It packs a powerful punch, saying more in ten passes of the charcoal across the paper than most writers can human emotions reflected by the desperate post WWI years in Germany. This is the grim sequel of war: Hunger, violence, brutality, and suicide. In frame after frame, Kollwitz guides us through our most shameful sins of hate, ignorance, and inhuman cruelty. Yet her style is spare, even elegant.
Writers to influence Kollwitz were politically active, socialists, revolutionaries. Karl Marx and the playwright Gerhardt Hauptmann, notably his play THE WEAVERS for which she created a series of exceptional prints. Kollwitz would use an idea picked from a book, play or manifesto, then use it as the starting point for her reconstructions. Her "proletariat art" is psychologically real: we are THERE in the moment as woman's child dies of hunger in her arms. We are THERE when a mob is driven to frenzy in a bread line. And, we are there with Kollwitz as she depicts herself in her last drawings, greeting and embracing the figure of Death, her face ecstatic with joy that she will finally be relieved of this wretched Life.
Less eloquent than Kollwitz, the artists GEORGE GROSZ (1893-1959) and OTTO DIX (1891-1969) were not content to merely "report" the horror of Germany at this time. Instead they made a revivalist religion out of the virulent disillusionment and cynicism of their age. This social realism is actively macabre and sinister to the core. Germany is autopsied as a squalid hell of rank profiteers and obscene prostitutes. Greed, gluttony and lust coexist with poverty, disease and death.
The work of Grosz captures this tension completely. Rarely has an artist been so motivated by hate. He supported himself through art school by selling drawings of the depravity of Berlin nightlife. Sent to the front in WWI, wounded, then returned to the trenches, he ended his military career in an asylum. His imagery, usually in the form of caricaturish cartoons, is bitter; his paintbrush dipped in acid, his canvas caustic. His work surpassed that of the writers of his day in extreme social satire. He was often in trouble with authorities. The sheer repulsion Grosz exhibits for mankind borders on fantasy. But the fantasy is dark and cruel rather than dreamlike.
Otto Dix maintained a painting style that was coldly realistic. This is the new objectivity, unhampered by abstraction or cartoonish forms. His style is "super" realistic: Uncompromising realism, highly detailed in the tradition of Bosch and Grunwald. The result is a sense of overpowering confrontation, as commonplace objects, rendered with startlingly exaggerated detail take on a supernatural aura.
Born in Ireland during the same tumultuous years, FRANCES BACON (1909-1992) is the first artist covered here whose life spans the 20th century. His art is of the monstrous, the deformed, the diseased. His reference point for beginning his images are rooted in the paintings of tradition, such as Velazquez's "Portrait of Pope Innocent X" from which his "shrieking pope" series of paintings would emerge.
His work was heavily influenced by the work of author T.S. Eliot, particularly Eliot's play "The Family Reunion" and "Sweeney Agonistes". Themes of pursuit and of predatory voyeurs who look into rooms containing "caged" subjects fill Bacon's canvases again and again. His vivid translations of literary phrases such as, "the reek of human blood smiles at me" culled from William Bedell Stanford's "Aeschylus in His Style" disturb and horrify. This is the vision invoked by Albert Camus, Paul Bowles, John Paul Sartre, and George Orwell.
The trend of Bacon to obsessively rework a set of personal iconography indicates a shift in dark art in the late 20th century. It is art as a form of religion: embracing horror as a means of salvation. And this idea points to the last two artists in this discussion, JOE COLEMAN (b. 1955) and JOEL PETER WITKIN (b. 1939). These artists are still living and working in their chosen medium. Therefore their imagery and personal iconographies are still works in progress. Yet they look back in their use of traditional texts and images as a basis for their art, and point forward into the 21st century and the dark artists who will follow. Both artists work in obsessive detail. Both exhibit a magnificent pathology that is penetratingly direct.
Joe Coleman's paintings are dense microcosms of his subjects' worlds. Contained in decorative borders so excruciatingly detailed that they become almost mystically charged, there exist minute vignettes, literary and religious text fragments, and quotes that hug the central figure. His subjects include serial killers (Ed Gein, Carl Panzram), and other famous tormented figures, like Edgar Allan Poe and Jayne Mansfield. These are "modern saints" cushioned in illuminated scripture rendered obsessively with a single-hair brush. Coleman's is influenced by the writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine (1894-1961) whose work "Long Journey to the End of Night" concludes with bitter misanthropy that the shelter of an asylum is better than living in the wasteland of modern life. Other texts that suffuse his work include religious texts, the writings of Nietzche, Freud, and de Sade.
When the artist is the Creator, he establishes his own laws of nature. Joel Peter Witkin through his photographic art creates a world of stark iconography that melds corpses, fetuses, human-animal hybrids, freaks, sadomasochism and androgyny, the deformed and the depraved together in an extreme vision. "My art is sacred work, since what I make are my prayers," Witkin has said. The initial reaction to his "prayers" may be revulsion. But look closely at the tableaux of posed corpses, monstrosities, and perversions, and one sees the coexistence of death and life. Witkin attempts to create wholeness from the corruption of the flesh, the scream of existence, and the mystical ecstasy of delirious pain. The carnal and the spiritual become one, grim realism and fantasy coexist on this spiritual plane.
Ending this exploration of dark art at the end of the millennium, this quote from Joel Peter Witkin is a reaffirmation of the work of artists and writers struggling today. It is an utterance of hope, a mantra of self-love that every artist must hold onto to survive and flourish:
"My art is the way I perceive and define lifeŠThese works are the measure of my character, the transfiguration of love and desire, and, finally the quality of my soul. With this work, I am judged by myself, by my contemporaries, and finally, by God. My life and work are inseparable. It is all I have. It is all I need."
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