THE ROOTS OF MASSURREALISM*
A History of the Modern World According to Vincent Van Gogh, Salvador Daii & Andy Warhol and the others.
Perhaps we can better understand what Massurrealism is by exploring where it came from, and how it fits into the truly mind-boggling stream of ideas and paintings that form the legacy of each of us today. It's a diverse and far reaching chronicle, yet one that we too often take for granted. It includes such diverse geniuses as Michelangelo and Van Gogh, Ingres and Warhol, Courbet and Dali, (to name a few). Because in many ways, all of us are their offspring. We follow in the paths they, and many thousands of others, have opened for us.
The Impact of Photography
The impetus towards Massurrealism really began with the invention of photography. Before that, at least since the Renaissance, a primary goal of Western painting had been a photographic type of realism; to try to accurately capture on canvas the "reality" that seemed to exist in the world around us. Some, most often those we remember best, went far beyond mere reproduction. Botticelli and Michelangelo sought physical perfection; Vermeer and Frans Hals looked into the mind within. William Blake, like the Medievalists before him, pursued metaphysical and allegorical insights. Yet, on the surface, an image of reality, a human body, a face, a tiger. was always the starting point.
When photography appeared, about 1830, painting began to change forever. We see the first steps toward this change in paintings by Gustave Courbet. He viewed nature and society in a dispassionate way, often with a critical eye. Rather than building the painting up in thin successive layers in the neo-classical style of the time, he applied paint thickly in a direct and straightforward manner. Courbet had a shockingly novel idea that painting should be contemporaneous. His concern was with that directly seen before ones eyes. He chose subjects from middle and working class provincial people and rural themes, which inflamed the public and critics alike. Others, like Edouard Manet began to flatten perspective, to become more two-dimensional in ways similar to the newly imported Japanese prints. His subject matter in both ‘Luncheon on the Grass’ and ‘Olympia’ created shock and bewilderment with the public. This was after over 3000 works had been rejected by the Salon, in Paris, in1863. This created such a public outcrying that Napoleon III ordered an exhibition of the rejects. Manet gradually became more concerned with shapes, design, and coloration with pure and simple colors, perhaps and most importantly pure blacks. The Impressionists explored ways of capturing the atmospheric light. They began to experiment with colors: brilliant reds, bright yellows, blues, purples and tubes of white. We see a pattern developing: painters like, Claude Monet, became less concerned with the reality of what was actually "out there," and more concerned with how they saw that reality. Van Gogh turned the aims of the,Impressionists by applying vigorous brushstrokes into a powerhouse of expressiveness.
Paul Cezanne took all of this a step further. Called the "Father of Modem Art," he gave enormous solidity to the forms he painted. They became almost geometric solids, shaped not so much with shadow and strict perspective as with what we today call color temperature — warm rich colors in the foreground, colder, bluer colors as our vision recedes. Cezanne is also important to us because he began to put into words what he was trying to do. “Not only”, he said, “is the object out there changing constantly, as light and movement affect it, but our own vision of what we see is also in constant motion as we, viewer and painter, change our moods, our patience, our receptivity.” Thus with Cezanne, images on canvas became a synthesis, a combining of what was "out there" and what was "in here." Matisse, Derain and the other Fauves (Wild Beasts) also shocked the public and the academies at the beginning of the twentieth century with an explosion of raw color. Like sticks of dynamite, pure primaries right out of the tube replacing all the mixed colors in an entire painting, combined with the expressiveness of violent brushwork.
The Perspective Shifts
We leap ahead to Picasso and the Cubists, yet here too we see these same ideas take yet another step forward. Because Picasso pushed even further away from the object, from the real, into the reality he saw within, and wanted us to see with him. He abstracted form into planes and cubes, and in this abstraction sought to show us many views of a single "reality." He glanced too into the surreal, into the dreamlike visions that show us other, more personal truths. And in Picasso, we are suddenly aware that within a single image, many ideas, many visions, many insights are going on at the same time.
Dadaism was started as a revolt against the barbarisms of war. It's first step was to attack the icons of the old culture. The target was the hypocrisy of those that felt art promoted spiritual values. Marcel Duchamp created a sensation, at the 1913 Armory Show in New York, with “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2”. The Dada artists adapted cubist collaging techniques to make incongruous juxtapositions of images and letters from the garbage. They created Art by calling manufactured objects Art. Marcel Duchamp’s Porcelain urinal turned on it's back and titled “Fountain” signed by R. Mutt is an example of the outrageous directions that pushed the limits of Fine Art. Art became conceptual and witty. Surrealism joined the revolt and helped to thrust home the subversive attack on all those overly civilized standards. The surrealists wanted to create art that you would wonder about. Something away from reason and balance. It was the Surrealists who began to focus almost totally on what was within, on the "reality" of the imagined, the unreal. Salvador Dali, Man Ray, Rene Magritte and others began to apply psychiatric influences by searching into dreams, into the subconscious, and combine the many discontinuous images found there into a new type of reality — from melting watches and frightening, empty landscapes, to fireplaces with trains emerging. The concept of using automatic writing and other similar techniques to obtain access into the subconscious realities began with the Dadaists and was further developed by the surrealists. More and more, we traveled in Art from an exploration of the “out there” to an investigation of “In here”.
The Ultimate Rejection
In the late 1940s came Modem Art, or Modernism, and it almost totally ignored the “out there”. It also reduced and minimized the “In here” to the simple act of painting itself. Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Clyfford Still, Willem de Kooning and others left realism totally behind, and the "subject" of their work became the visceral process of applying paint and color to a surface. Fine Art became purified. Refined. Devoid of any extraneous content. The limits of Art became the new context. And, in the process Fine Art became a stunning success. The most modem became the accepted, the popular, the promoted. Art was studied and taught by the universities. Sales to collectors and museum reached all time highs. Every major corporation had to invest in a major Art collection to express their position and power. What had once been the acts of rebellion and revolt in the times leading up to this period, now became the best of the new, the most sought after. It was what Art had been aiming for since Courbet and Corot. The artist became a cultural hero.
A second wave of Abstract Expressionism took this voyage even further to try to reach the limits of Art. With Richard Diebenkorne, Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler, Frank Stella and many others, painting became not only divorced from outside reality, but also from all but the most basic inner emotions. Form, and color itself, became the ultimate abstraction, the only reality. The explorations took place with increasing finesse as a search for pure beauty, simpler forms. Less is More.
Fine Art from the Renaissance until the Impressionists was always stimulated to become more complex, pure, meaningful and more powerful. The history of Modern Art has been one of closing off and purifying itself until it no longer contained subject matter or stylistic conventions of any kind. Although I've been writing mainly about the movements that lead directly to Massurrealism or that are background helping to clarify those movements, all modern movements lead finally to this dead end. The point where the artist is devoid of an ideology that would form the basis for creating further. We aren't to that point quite yet, but when we see Modem Art approved by the public and the academies alike, it can't be far off. As soon as they lose interest (the public and the schools) and Art becomes appreciated and understood by only the most sophisticated elite, it will be time to reevaluate.
Reality Pops Back In
Then came a new revolution. It was called Pop Art. Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, James Rosenquist and many others turned against the individualistic and often delicate inner sensibilities of the Abstractionists, and began to look outward for the ideal of democratic beauty in the commonplace and the banal. Brute images of popular culture ‘hot dogs, cigarette butts, comic strips, off-register visions of Marilyn Monroe’ these became their aesthetic. The ‘out there’ began to be important again.
THE FUTURE, MASSURREALISM
So where have we been in this quick journey? We began with a focus on the outer world, with pictorial reality. Then came the camera to change that focus, and turn the artist inward to explore, in growing steps, the world he found there. Literal reality was swept aside, and the inner world began to dominate art until it seemed to become so individualistic, so personal, that any attempt at communication, at sharing beauty or insight with others, was stopped in its tracks. Then the pendulum began to swing back. Vision was ripped unceremoniously away from inner feelings, and back outside to the harsh realities of hamburgers, coke bottles, and icons of Elizabeth Taylor. And here is Massurrealism, dealing with all of this, rejecting none of it, the realities outside, and the visions, emotions and realities inside. We see it in the paintings of such diverse talents as David Hockney, Ron Kitaj and Jennifer Bartlett. Each attempts to find beauty and, dare we say, some sort of understanding in the diverse, discontinuous and often conflicting cacophony of modern life. For today, both the real and the surreal, the outside and the inside, have become very real components of waking up each morning.
Massurrealism is more than a fad, more than just clever art for art's sake. Rather, it is rapidly becoming a return to the mainstream of art. For it sets out to integrate all of our worlds into a more compelling and comprehensive image than we may have ever known before. And while many of us have been trained by the Modernists, Massurrealism is also a rejection of the extremes and barrenness we were taught. Where Modernists reject history, sentiment, memory, ornament and almost any attempt at realism, we embrace them all, and search for both beauty and understanding in fields as diverse as particle physics and global communications. No field is left out; all come to our canvas. The artist has become free again. The ideology needed to define artistic work is back: subject matter, stylistic convention, beauty, eclectic interest in Art from all sources past and present.
Massurrealism is also a blending of Pop Art and Surrealism. Where Abstract Expressionism sought to eliminate and purify using cold abstraction and the rejection of all but aesthetics, we have struck out to enrich our work with wit, metaphor, ornament and coloration. We are concerned with symbolism, with technology, and an allegorical renewal of our relationships with past cultures. We are children of a mass culture defined by economics and pragmatism, and we are especially committed to a pluralism in the way we state ideas. The juxtaposition of images, and the ways we see those images (and the way we want our viewer to see them too), can be viewed as a return to Realism and/or Surrealism with added dimensions from the culture that shapes each of us. As we reach towards the next movement, we have become aware of a world of conflicts of a new-age sensitivity awash in unparalleled technological inventiveness; of the quiet inside being bombarded by a violent and mysterious universe outside; of a growing acceptance of universal oneness clashing almost daily with battles between nations, races, sexes and personalities. In response, the age-old questions continue to emerge: "What is actually there? How does it all work? What does it all mean?" And for Massurrealists, as for artists from every movement and every era back to the cave dwellers of Lascaux, these questions are the starting point.
©2013 Michael Morris *The term Massurrealism was coined by artist James Seehafer in 1992
Ordinary Evening New Haven
• Jennifer Bartlett • 1989