It is important to observe how big of a part art had played during the post-war period, consequently leaving behind a sea of brilliant artworks. It was 1945 and the World War II was over; however, the Cold War broke out in its aftermath. The political climate was marked by the battles between the Capitalist West and the Communist East, creating a traumatizing discrepancy, evident to this day.
Art always responds in some way, and so the vantage points from which to observe it were polarized as well, which gave birth to a vast number of concurrent streams. Therefore, we can see the most obvious difference between the tendencies toward abstraction, suggested by the pro-democratic American high-culture, and the European post-war art, which fell under the slight influence of figuration and realism, propagated by the Soviet Union. And then, there was everything else in between: Pop Art, which employed aspects of mass culture (unlike Abstract Expressionism), Fluxus, as a Dada-derived anti-art nihilist movement, Art Brut or Outsider Art if you want, new realism in France, and all the other forms of realism, which emerged in Great Britain, Socialist Realism in the Russian Soviet Republic, etc. It seems that the post-war dunghill was a very fertile ground to start from, and lucky for us, some of the most ingenious artists were eager to make new history. Let’s see which of the paintings from this era of ambivalence and post-trauma could be the most pertinent ones, from today’s point of view, and take a quick survey of the most iconic artworks made in our recent history, in times of crisis which we cannot fully understand, but we could perhaps compare it to the crisis of our own.
Francis Bacon - Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944
The dark tone typical for Bacon’s painting resonates better with the war itself than the post-war period, although most of his significant works that were made later in the 20th century remained equally destructive and emotionally disturbing. The motive of crucifixion served as a symbol of pain and death, and Bacon used the allegory to make Three studies for figures at the base of a crucifixion. Using imagery devoid of religious connotations, the artist aimed merely to depict human suffering. This was, however, not very political in itself, and it was even condemned by a renowned critic John Berger, who didn’t approve Bacon’s art because of its supposed “lack of indignation”. On the other hand, Bacon himself never claimed to be a realist, and he used to place greater emphasis on the violence and distortion in his work as mediators between the viewer and the artwork. Therefore, in the post-war climate, his art served an unsolicited purpose – Bacon’s dark emotion was a completely personal thing, and not an illustrative comment on the war.
Jackson Pollock - Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), 1950
Pollock is probably one of the most renowned artists ever, the master of abstract art who succeeded in realizing a completely new, seemingly simple technique of art-making – dripping. The way he used to handle paint gives results which stand on the verge between painting and post-performance products, given the fact that the painting itself doesn’t mean much without the process behind it. The large canvas used for Autumn Rhythm (no. 30) lay on the floor, in a horizontal position, waiting for the artist to start the session. Pollock used to drip and pour paint all over it, moving to the beat of his own inner rhythm, occasionally using towels and sticks to help him complete the painting. Pollock used to say: “Painting is a state of being. … Painting is self-discovery. Every good artist paints what he is“. And that is what abstract expressionism was about.
Jean Dubuffet - The Cow With The Subtile Nose, 1954
Pop Art may have had the intention to challenge certain aspects of high art, but it wasn’t even close to being as “low” as Jean Dubuffet’s Art Brut was. For Dubuffet, beauty was not about the standardized prototypes embraced by the popular culture, and not about the exclusiveness of abstract expression, either. Most of his art was aiming to get out of the system, and to ignore everything related to the “official” cultural standards, including art institutions. The Cow with the Subtile Nose was one of Dubuffet’s most significant paintings, as it represents a familiar domestic animal in a naive, harmless manner, ignorant of any fear related to potential criticism. The cow with the subtle nose, and girly eyes, stares at us as we stare back at her (rather than it), embodying all the freedom of Outsider Art.
Jasper Johns - Three Flags, 1958
This piece is probably one of the most famous artworks of the 20th century. Three American flags are sealed to each other, painted with warm wax, and each is 25% smaller than the previous one. Three Flags is, therefore, not really what you would call a regular painting, perhaps it is more of a sculpture which consists of three paintings, descending in size. The piece examines the way abstraction overlaps with representation – the American flag carries a great emblematic connotation, but in the end, it is only stripes and star-shapes. Jasper Johns deliberately goes beyond the limits of a flag, playing with symbols that “the mind already knows”, which is an approach typical for Pop Art. And just for the record, the artwork was acquired for one million dollars by the Whitney Museum, in 1980.
Yves Klein - IKB 49, 1960
Post-war art was different in Europe than in the United States, and it was particularly authentic in France. One of the movements that emerged in the 1960s was new realism, which was one of the many avant-guarde tendencies in Europe at the time. New realism reflected on the Duchampian idea that art and life should be connected, in a way that makes a certain “appropriation” of reality possible. Because of this, you won’t find two representatives of new realism with a similar style, but you will find similarities in their ideologies. One of the most prominent artists related to this movement is Yves Klein, who was fascinated by monochromacy, monotony and basically everything that could get close to the concept of infinity. From 1956 onwards, Klein would place his focus on one color only, which has determined his position in the art world more clearly. Consequently, a particular tone of blue is now known as IKB (international Klein blue).
Roy Lichtenstein - Whaam!, 1963
By the 1960s, it seemed like the world was getting tired of the uncanny appearance of Abstract Expressionism, and this atmosphere made it possible for Pop Art to emerge. The powerful new stream changed the way art was perceived at the time, by deploying imagery from popular culture, and reconciling “high” culture with the masses. As one of the initiators of the movement, Roy Lichtenstein became extremely popular over the course of time. His deliberate appropriation of comic-book imagery became one of the most engaging forms of artistic expression, mostly thanks to the size of these artworks and the medium – magna acrylic and oil on canvas. Out all the Lichtenstein’s recognizable paintings, Whaam! is probably the most popular one. We strongly suggest you read more about the significance of the painting on Wikipedia (don’t get too shocked by the length of the article).
Wayne Thiebaud – Lipstick, 1964
The work of Wayne Thiebaud is usually associated with Pop Art, mostly due to his choice of subject matter. However, some of his early works were made before the movement was officially established, so it could be said that Thiebaud had the ability to anticipate what the future would look like, but he never considered himself as a pop artist. Thiebaud’s art identifies the objects of mass culture through a unique relationship between exaggerated color and monumental shadows, and Lipstick from 1964 exemplifies that manner. He often chose to depict food, make-up, toys and clothes, or simply, the things we love to buy, but he also did it in an old-fashioned way, opposing the flat, mechanical painting introduced by Andy Warhol. The mass culture was, however, a persistent motif in the post-war period.
Lucian Freud - Reflection with Two Children, 1965
Freud made the somewhat mysterious self-portrait looking down at the mirror placed at his feet, in which he saw his own reflection and the ceiling lamp. The two children who appear in the left corner of the image are Freud’s daughters, Rose and Ali Bolt. They are depicted in a rather strange manner, quite small, in a seemingly arbitrary position. Freud’s comment on this matter was never clearly articulated, but he did use to denote that everything is autobiographical and that everything is a portrait, so this painting clearly falls under that category. Critics suppose that the painting represents Freud’s own reflection upon himself as a person, an artist and a father. While he’s looking at his own reflection, and into his own eyes, he seems to pay no attention to his little children. But is this a form of self-criticism, or a metaphor for having his children constantly on his mind?
David Hockney - Beverly Hills Housewife, 1966-67
David Hockney is certainly one of the most renowned artists of the post-war period (which is not to say that his more recent artworks aren’t as brilliant). There were two of his paintings which marked the post-war era in a way, and they will both be featured in this article. Beverly Hills Housewife depicts Betty Freeman (who was more than just a housewife, as you probably know) on the patio of her luxurious apartment in Los Angeles. The painting is an important part of his California Dreaming series, which reflects on a world that was new to Hockney – the world of American modern culture. It is supposed to depict the good life that the American dream stood for, an iconic, modern home, equipped with designer furniture and contemporary artworks.
David Hockney - A Bigger Splash, 1967
A Bigger Splash has had such strong influence, that two movies were made after it. The painting depicts a swimming pool, which looks like someone has just jumped in it. Everything is shown in a simplified manner, and it seems to lack depth, which once again portrays the lightness of the ideal American life. Neither the public nor David Hockney knows who jumped in the pool, but we do know that Hockney painted the image from a photograph of a splash. In response to this matter, Hockney once said that “most of the painting was spent on the splash and the splash lasts two seconds and the building is permanent there. That’s what it’s about actually.“