Unreal Nature

September 8, 2015

To Depict a Damaged World

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:55 am

… A tear in the flesh of an already dismembered image was simply a graphic detail. A gash in a recognizably rendered face, on the other hand, registered the violence done.

… its vertical air vent, both mouth and vagina, mindlessly hunts its prey …

This is from Modern Painting and Sculpture: 1880 to the Present at The Museum of Modern Art, edited by John Elderfield (2004). This book uses extracts from other books to comment on the featured artists (I’m extracting from those extracts… ) If that text does not refer specifically to the MoMA art that is shown in the parent book, I may choose to use some other work by the artist to illustrate my post. Today’s first is from Modern Art Despite Modernism by Robert Storr (2000):

Dix_DrMeyerHermann1926
Otto Dix, Dr. Mayer-Hermann, 1926

The portrait Dr. Mayer Hermann provides a four-square image of a portly physician in which each detail of his medical equipment is described with the same emotionally detached precision used for the features of his impassive face. The painting is manifestly the creation of an artist with a camera eye, but the hand that records what the eye sees has been to school with Albrecht Dürer, Hans Baldung Grien, and Wolf Huber. The clinical calm of this portrait differs strikingly from the chaotic ferocity of much of the rest of Dix’s work; his ghastly depictions of the trenches, his lurid scenes of poverty, sex crimes, and cabaret life, and his angry caricatures of the war wounded begging on the streets of Berlin show Dix’s fury at its bluest flame.

Images of the latter kind suggest another reason why “realism” seemed a necessity for artists wishing to document or react to what they had seen during the war. While it is true that some merely sought security in the old artistic ways and others hoped to rebuild what had been destroyed by patching fragments of modernism together with bits of salvaged tradition, those who wanted to depict a damaged world had to address a basic formal problem: for those damages to be visible some semblance of a pictorial whole needed to exist.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] A tear in the flesh of an already dismembered image was simply a graphic detail. A gash in a recognizably rendered face, on the other hand, registered the violence done. In short, bullets and bayonets had “abstracted” the body in ways that grotesquely mimicked Cubist dismantling of the figure; any confusion between the two threatened to become an intolerable aesthetic parody of actual suffering.

The next is from and essay by Robert Rosenblum in Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation (1996):

Picasso_Bather-with-Beach-Ball
Pablo Picasso, Bather with Beach Ball, 1932

… At first, we recognize many of the attributes of the teenager who, summering at Dinard, was actually photographed in a bathing suit, beach ball in hand. There is the smooth flow of her seedpod hair, the spheroid anatomy, and even the color code of yellow and violet on her skin-tight bathing suit. But another kind of being, more predatory than seductive, appears to inhabit her spirit and body, transferring her into a humanoid kin of a rubbery gray squid. Jet-propelled across the blue sky, her bulbous head, with its two round, staring, lidless eyes and its vertical air vent, both mouth and vagina, mindlessly hunts its prey, the hair streaking behind like waterborne tentacles.

[line break added] The prey, of course, is presumably nothing but a beach ball, but it will never be caught. Rendered in two dimensions, as opposed to the creature’s emphatically modeled three, it also becomes the most remote astral body, which its pursuer stupidly grasps at with tumescent, fingerless hands, as demanding and as ignorant as a child reaching for the moon. A voracious creature, perhaps the specter of Olga [Picasso’s first wife], has momentarily invaded this seaside romp on what the diminutive tricolor, which shuttles us dizzily from near to far, round to flat, tiny to large, proclaims as French territory. And as usual, Picasso is secretly present.

My most recent post from Elderfield’s book is here.

-Julie

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