In this lesson, we’ll look at the style of painting referred to as Abstract Expressionism.
Hugely influential in the years after World War II, it was the first American style to gain global prestige, even though some viewers thought it wasn’t art at all.
You’ve probably heard someone say that a lot of modern art looks like something a kindergartener could do. The kind of art the speaker had in mind is most likely Abstract Expressionism, the style of painting that dominated the art world from World War II until the 1960s.The Abstract Expressionists had no interest in creating recognizable images of the world we see around us. They wanted their canvases to reflect their own struggle to find meaning in the act of painting, in a world where any camera could show what things looked like.Abstract Expressionism is also called the ‘New York School,’ and it marked an important historical shift. After World War II, Paris was no longer the center of the art world.
Abstract Expressionism was the first internationally celebrated art style to emerge from the American art scene, and while some people hated it, others championed it as an expression of American individualism.
The term ‘Abstract Expressionism’ really does explain what this style is all about. First of all, it’s abstract art – the artist is not trying to recreate the look of things out here in the ‘real world’. The canvas is not a ‘window into space’; in fact, as painters and critics of the time would point out, it’s not a ‘space’ at all – it’s a two-dimensional surface the artist makes marks on. Sure, those marks can create the illusion of space, but that’s all it is, an illusion. Shouldn’t an artist strive to be something more than an illusionist?In the years around World War II, the answer to that last question was almost always ‘yes’.
That’s where the term expressionism comes in. It was the artist’s job to express the truth of the human condition, even if that truth was not very pretty. Where should the artist look for truth? For many, the answer was: inside the artist’s own psyche, in the subconscious, where the primal fears and desires that shape our behavior can be found.By the early 1900s, painters who used bold lines and colors to express feeling in their work were already being called Expressionists.
(Think of ‘The Scream’, by Norwegian painter Edvard Munch. That’s Expressionism.)
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