Other Happenings in the 1940's

Lesson 4: Other happenings in the 1940's


This lesson will continue to discuss the artistic movements stemming from the transition of European modernism to the United States and the end of World War II as it affected artists across the globe. This lesson will delve into the artists of Europe and the other artistic movements that were a part of the late 1940's and early 1950's.

Paris in the 1940's

Much like New York City, the artists in Paris found that although surrealism was still in the fore, they needed to explore a more social and ethical route. The artists used the ideas of automatism as well to explore the unconscious mind, but in more the way that New York artists had, searching for an existential truth through an emotionally immediate approach. They were driven to explore questions about the meaning of their own lives. Due to the occupation and atrocities of WWII, Europeans were faced with questions such as, is there a God, and where do people personally stand in relation to their environment. Existentialism also gives an ideal view towards these questions.

Jean Dubuffet

Jean Dubuffet,Childbirth, 1944

Jean Dubuffet lived in Paris in the 1940s. He left his wine business and started painting in 1942 during the German occupation. Dubuffet depicted mostly ordinary views of daily life. He painted in a very child-like style influenced directly by graffiti and the art of children. The surfaces are thick with paint and many times the lines are scratched into this texture much like the graffiti of the time.


Dubuffet, 1946: "It is the man in the street that I am after, whom I feel closest to, with whom I want to make friends and enter into confidence and connivance, and he is the one I want to please and enchant by means of my work.” (Fineberg 131)


Dubuffet’s search for a style that would be understood by everyman brought him to the idea of the primitive. His work breaks from the “Greek Plastic” as Barnett Newman would say. He wanted to appeal to everyman, but also to make a fresh unconventional exploration of such grand philosophical themes as the origins of thought and the evanescence of the individual instead of the prejudices of the culture surrounding him. The threat of disintegration into the environment and ultimately into the universe of undifferentiated matter is a pervasive theme. Dubuffet looked to the art of children Stating,

My persistent curiosity about children’s drawings, and those of anyone who has never learned to draw, is due to my hope of finding… the affective reactions that link each individual to the things that surround him and happen to catch his eye. (Fineberg 131)

Children’s rendering of experience is less dominated by cultural norms. Dubuffet’s method resembles automatism in the sense that he allows the painted truth to come out as the painting progresses on the canvas.


Jean Dubuffet,Large Sotty Nude, 1944

Dubuffet's first show was in October 1944, immediately after the Liberation of France. The technique, style, and sexuality of his imagery, being so raw, was not taken to well by the French public. And his second show in 1946 even brought viewers to the point where they slashed several of his paintings. His paintings were considered iconoclastic imagery recalling specifically primitive and child art. The subjects became a matter of descriptive fact, more in tune with the idea that they are extensions of the observing mind.

Dubuffet began collecting what he called, “art brut” (raw art) created by untrained individuals (psychotics, amateurs, children) uninfluenced by cultural conventions of design and creation. Partly inspired by Hans Prinzhorn’s book, Artistry of the Mentally Ill.

Jean Dubuffet,Landscape with Drunkards 1949

In 1949, Dubuffet painted several graffiti-like landscapes. They show the ground from a bird’s eye view but the figure elements at a profile. The forms are created by carving into a thick impasto paint surface much like graffiti. The paintings describe an isolation of the individual elements recalling how children describe each element separately. Dubuffet may have come across this idea from personal observation through his collection or from Artistry of the Mentally Ill where it is mentioned that the untrained separates object form orientation.

Dubuffet-Le_Metafisyx-1950.jpg Dubuffet-The_Squinter-1953.jpg
Jean Dubuffet,Le Metefisyx 1950; and The Squinter, 1953

Dubuffet’s work moved to more of an universal idea describing the world around him rather than dealing with a single view of everyday life. “The immaterial world which dwells in the mind of man. (Fineberg 135)” The compositions spread out and take on new materials such as butterfly wings, as seen in The Squinter, leaves, or other materials for collage to create disorder and texture.

In 1951, Dubuffet literally cut up canvases and reassembled them in collage. Though the material changed, the overall idea remained the same: Landscapes, busy surfaces creating chaos, and grotesque figures from child and graffiti art.

Jean Dubuffet,Place for Awakenings, 1960

Around 1960, the subject becomes the amorphous field itself. The paintings are not abstract in a usual sense, however quite the opposite. This is a perpendicular view of a small segment of ground. This takes what most people take for granted into focus. They are much like Pollock’s work as well. The Physicality of the material made the existential experience of the painting more real.

Jean Dubuffet,Business Prospers, 1961

There becomes a new focus on color entering his work in 1961 where he also shifts his subject to complex landscapes. Here, there is a frame of reference, however the viewer is forced into the chaos of everyday life in the business center.

In 1962, Dubuffet was doodling while on a phone and created a pattern of interlocking forms which became the basis for a series of paintings called “Hourloupe” which lasted more than a decade. The Line eliminated all individuality and the principle of the interlocking forms suggested an infinitely expandable pattern.

Jean Dubuffet,Erre et Aberre, 1963

These works are similar to his earlier pieces in that they work with themes of dissolution and untrained mark much like the art of the psychotics. He states about this new style, "This consistently uniform script indifferently applied to all things… will reduce them all to the lowest common denominator and restitute a continuous undifferentiated universe. (Fineberg 138)”

Alberto Giacometti and Existentialism

Alberto Giacometti was born in 1901 to a family of turn-of-the-century avant-garde artists. At Nineteen he accompanied his father to the Venice Biennale where he studied Tintoretto, Giotto, and Cimabue passionately. Cezanne was also in the Biennale. He then stayed in Rome for nine months to study from the work there. Giacometti maintained a connection to the figure in his work.

Alberto Giacometti, The Palace at 4 a.m.

He, like most artists, had a strong influence from surrealism during the time. This work shows a sense of overlapping reality and dream. He states to Pierre Matisse:

A palace with a skeleton bird and a spinal column in a cage and a woman at the other end… It related without any doubt to a period of my life that had come to an end a year before, when for six whole months hour after hour was passed in the company of a woman who, concentrating all life in herself, magically transformed my every moment. We used to construct a fantastic palace at night… In the statue of a woman… O recognize my mother, just as she appears in my earliest memories. The mystery of her long black dress troubled me; it seemed to me like a part of her body, and aroused in me a feeling of fear and confusion... I can’t say anything about the red object in front of the board; I identify it with myself. (Fineberg 140)

Alberto Giacometti, Woman with Throat Cut

In works such as these, Giacometti combines through automatic gesture forms that are later associated to an idea in a surrealist way. These early works gain much from the surrealists, but became highly influential to contemporary artists and directors such as Tim Burton.

As early as 1932, Giacometti began working on figurative sculpture, but after five years of work from life, he failed to finish any sculpture and was never satisfied with his ability to portray what was before him. Until 1945 he struggled until, through drawing he came to the belief that he was only capturing a likeness when he made his people tall and slender.

Giacometti-smallnude.jpg Giacometti-%20GrandeFemmeIV-1960.jpg
Small Nude, and Grande Femme IV

Giacometti exhibited these tall thin figures in 1948 at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in NY. It was his first one-man show in fourteen years.

Existentialism stresses a radical reduction to the essence or beginning of things. Giacometti’s work was more involved with the process of discovery than with the final result or any aesthetic objective. (Pollock and de Kooning). Giacometti pushed aside training to portray what was in front of him. He found this impossible and thus began again and again until someone would finally come to his studio and remove the work for show. His works make reference to ancient Greek sculpture as well. A new sort of ideal. Much like action painting, the figures deal with the intimate presence of the artist. Later in his life, he began giving his figures real presence and identity.

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon emerged at the end of WWII with images of figures transformed through the unconscious. He would begin, like Giacometti, to paint as he saw the object and then transform it using what he also saw in the object and the processes from his unconscious mind.

Francis Bacon, Study after Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X

Bacon's painting demonstrates a claustrophobic space, pressure of vertical strokes close in uncomfortably while the figure blurs out anonymously. His approach goes beyond surrealism in its adherence to the overt subject matter and comes closer to Freud. This painting couples the painting of Pope Innocent X with the screaming nurse on the Odessa Steps in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film The Battleship Potemkin. The film shows the nurse’s face with her mought wide open and blood streaming from her eye. He also used the contemporary photographs of Pope Pius XII for such details as the glasses. Bacon specifically states,

I’d bought that very beautiful hand-colored book on diseases of the mouth and, when I made the Pope screaming, I didn’t want to do it in the way that I did it – I wanted to make the mouth, with the beauty of its colour and everything, look like one of the sunsets… of Monet.(Fineberg 144)

Self Portrait

In his self portrait, the artist seems imprisoned behind a mask, but there is a painterly beauty much like a cubist or futurist rendering.

Painting, 1946

In Painting, the figure with slabs of meat behind him on a glass top table was inspired by a process of free association from images of WWII of Hitler and Mussolini speaking. Bacon describes,

I was attempting to make a bird alighting on a field. And… suddenly the lines that I’d drawn suggested something totally different, and out of this suggestion arose this picture… It was like one continuous accident. (Fineberg 144)

This painting however shows many of the repeated images for his work, the tubular table (from the time he spent designing furniture), the flayed beef hanging as though crucified, closed blinds with dangling cords, in a claustrophobic room, umbrella obliterating the eyes, an open mouth with exposed teeth, more raw meat on the table, and an oriental rug on the floor. Bacon further states,

I’ve always been very moved by pictures about slaughterhouses and meat, and to me they belong very much to the whole thing of the Crucifixion. There’ve been extraordinary photographs which have been done of animals just being taken up before they were slaughtered; and the smell of death. We don’t know, of course, but it appears by these photographs that they’re so aware of what is going to happen to them, they do everything to attempt to escape. I think these pictures were very much based on that kind of thing, which to me is very, very near this whole thing of the Crucifixion. (Fineberg 144)

The painting deals with the horror of life and how one thing lives off another and how there is no escape.


Cubist references also maintained a presence in Bacon’s work:

Three Studies of Figures on Beds

These paintings show a figurative sense of more than one angle at one time being represented. They however become disturbing because of how these deformations relate to a physical space. Here Bacon makes use of the book by Muybridge, The Human Figure in Motion. Bacon makes reference as well to the immediacy of a chance mark. He had splattered paint on the canvas, but with a sense of chance meaning. He uses this to find what is underlying the subject matter, the sensational fact.

International Tendencies

Life became simpler after WWII, and the shift of power had an influence on the art world as the United States and American prosperity pushed American Art around the world. The ideal changed to a more conservative “American” mindset and artists demonstrate their views on this conservative culture in many ways. Some modern artists became stricter about their practice and painting methodology, whereas others turned to fine art as a means of commentary.

Purified Abstraction

Europeans began to appreciate the Abstract Expressionist style, but incorporated it into their own works as a sense of painterly-ness rather than incorporating the underlying metaphysics.

Soulages-Painting.jpg Wols-OhneTitel-1945-46.jpg
Soulages, Painting and Wols, Ohne Titel, 1945-46

There was also a resurgence of figurative subject matter and gestural richness. Many artists developed out of the style of American action or gesture painting, though others from a more formalistic approach as with Wols and Soulages. These artists demonstrate many similarities to Klein and other American Abstract Expressionists, but they paint with a formal view of the material and method rather than the existentialist and surrealist underpinnings.

Burri-Abstraction_with_Brown_Burlap-1953 Fontana-Spatial_Concept.jpg
Burri, Abstraction with Brown Burlap, 1953 and Fontana, Spacial Concept

Two Italian artists of the time, Alberto Burri, and Lucio Fontana were interested in the physicality of materials and how they encounter with reality. Fontana in particular sought “an art in which our idea of art cannot interviene (Fineberg 152)." Total reality of the canvas as a material object. He dealt with the idea of a “Spatial Concept” which gave way to slashed canvases which represented the intensity and physicality of the canvas.

Fontana, Spatial Concept

Fontana's Spatial Concepts even emerged into three dimensional conceptions. These seem more based on celestial or cosmic imagery than the ideas of existentialism and action art.

As popularity grew for the action painters, opportunities for teaching positions and sales were always on the artist’s mind. The honesty of the work remained, but the relevance of it began to disappear. By the end of the 1950’s, more university educated artists with no “moral crisis in relation to painting (Fineberg 153)” (Newman described this as the previous challenge for artists) were actively producing art. Art, for many was apolitical. The artists were less interested in discussing intellectual, social, and political issues and focused on careers.

Mitchell-Untitled-1958.jpg Guston-TheClock-1956-57.jpg
Joan Mitchell,Untitled, 1958 and Philip Guston, The Clock, 1956-57

The term “derivative” became a catchword. Nobody wanted to look like another painter before them, but they wanted to learn from what they had done. They however rejected Newman and Rothko because of their “masterful” brushwork. Artists such as Mitchell and Guston, sought lyrical beauty through “polyreferential” marks. Painting became for painting sake. An enjoyment with application of materials.

Clement Greenberg

Greenberg's Definition of Modernism

Greenberg steps into the chaos of these second generation painters and provides a few rules for painting. He pushed for an idea of purification (of self and of physicality). Stemming from artists such as Pollock to Rothko. Under his theories, the “color field” or “stain” painters thus emerge.

Frankenthaler-Mountains_and_Sea-1952.jpg Louis-Sabent-1954.jpg
Helen Frankenthaler, Mountains and Sea, 1952 and Morris Louis, Sabent, 1954

Greenberg always felt that he could predict the next move and that there was only one next move determined through a logical progression in art. He states,

The essence of Modernism lies... in the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself… The task of Self criticism became to eliminate from the effects of each art any and every effect that might conceivably be borrowed from or by the medium of any other art. Thereby each art would be rendered “pure,” and in its “purity” find the guarantee of its standards of quality as well as of its independence (Fineberg 154).


In 1960, Greenberg has a great network of influence that dominates the public debate on art. Later, in 1964, an exhibition in Los Angeles, “Post Painterly Abstraction” defined Greenberg’s taste for modernism. Formalism emerges from a narrowly linear progress in modernism toward relentless purification. Only optical facts are significant in the discussion of painting. Subject matter was irrelevant, illusion forbidden, and anything that did not fit Greenberg’s logic was dropped as though it never existed. Michael Fried, a young critic of the time, states that once a painter who accepts the basic premises of modernism becomes aware of a particular problem thrown up by the art of the recent past, his action is no longer gratuitous but imposed.

The artist had to follow this predetermined logical path set out by Greenberg’s reasoning. Other artists did not follow these rules set out by critics and understood that art does not develop logically or in a linear progression. If one could predict the next move, then it would not be important because it is predictable. Harold Rosenberg, another such critic had written that this is what he liked about art, how it opens eyes to issues, and this is what Greenberg was reacting against.

In formalist painting, “Decorativeness” becomes an alternative to expression. Frankenthaler and Louis were praised as their washes of color emphasize the canvas surface as they become inseparable. They took inspiration from nature and Monet, but Greenberg ignores such inspirations. They also derived their imagery from a formalist analysis of gesture painting from the New York School.

Noland-Beginning-1958.jpg Albers-Homage_to_the_Square-From_Afar-19
Kenneth Noland, Beginning, 1958 and Josef Albers, Homage to the Square, From Afar, 1953

Artists such as Noland took off from such ideas as Jasper Johns’ Targets shown in 1958 and began to create a series of paintings that dealt directly with the interaction of colors and a logical relationship based on works like Josef Albers had been doing in the decades leading up to this point. Albers had taught at Black Mountain College where Noland had attended for several years. Albers once wrote to Rosenberg, “Angst is Dead” referring to his formal view on art and design.

Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting, 1960-66

Artists following these theories such as Ad Reinhardt take on this idea of interaction of materials and in a formalistic nature, minimizing the elements of design to stress their intention.

Varsarely, VEGA PER, 1969

The formal approach had many branches however. By 1965, the Museum of Modern Art had an exhibition titled, “The Responsive Eye” dealing with perceptual effects created through a formalist approach. Varsarely's paintings were aptly described as, “Op Art," which is short for optical art for their trompe l'oeil effects.

“New Images of Man”

Karel Appel, Questioning Children, 1949

An art movement titled "Cobra" was made up of artists from Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam. They integrated artistic exchanges to give some solidity to northern European artists. Their artwork consisted of expressive paint handling and an emphasis on imagery defined by the individual. They made use of surrealist automatism, Freudian psychology, and existentialism, interest in anonymous untrained art and the everyday experience much like Dubeffet was doing with his works. They believed that truly living art makes no distinction between the beautiful and the ugly.

Pierre Alenchinsky, Death and the Maiden 1967

Alenchinsky transformed the framing edge as well into a detailed commentary on the center. The frame by frame sequence also denotes comic strip drawing as a defining narrative, which Alechinsky was strongly influenced by. These artists thus began looking to art forms that Greenberg described as "Kitch" for their painterly influences.

Lucian Freud, Portrait of Francis Bacon, 1952

Figurative imagery also underwent a revival. The most notable painter of this time is the Englishman, Lucian Freud. Freud wanted his portraits to be “of” the people not “like” them. (Much like Bacon whom he was friends). His paintings demonstrate a powerful sense of reality which makes the viewer uneasy.

Lucian Freud, Naked Girl Asleep II, 1968

In Freud's paintings, the viewer is forced into a subject that seems to be more private in a real sense. His bodies are thick with paint, making them sculpted, fleshy forms, expressive of the media that is used to capture them. Often the figures become forms, contorted into strange positions, further adding to the unease.

Larry Rivers, Bedroom, 1955

Many artists also moved to a painterly style of representing figurative imagery. Most notably: Grace Hartigan, Alex Katz, Philip Pearlstein, and Fairfield Porter and Larry Rivers. They reverted back to realist subjects in order to betray modernism. These artists were working in stark protest of the leading critic, Greenberg, who stated that any painter today not working abstractly is working in a minor mode.


Philip Pearlstein, Two Models on a Kilim Rug with Mirror, 1983

Philip Pearlstein concerned himself with executing an indifferently objective representation of his subject. Most of which depict nudes posed in the studio. His unidealized style dealing with the material substance of things and how they relate to the canvas became the focus of his compositions throughout his career.

Diebenkorn-Woman_in_Profile-1958.jpg Bischoff-two_figures_at_the_seashore-195
Richard Diebenkorn, Woman in Profile, 1958 and Eric Bischoff, Two Figures at the Sea Shore, 1957

California also took note of the Abstract Expressionist techniques and applied them to more figurative imagery. Bischoff, and David Park attended the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco and turned to a gestural style of figuration between 1950 and 55. Diebenkorn had studied with Still and Rothko and David Park as well. After much traveling, Diebenkorn turned back to abstraction after moving finally to Santa Monica near the ocean.

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #107, 1978

From 1967 to 1992, Diebenkorn worked in this abstract style that derived from the beauty of the coastal light.

Wayne Thiebaud, Around the Cake, 1962

Wayne Thiebaud’s style also derives from these bay area expressionists. Many critics do not relay his subject matter to paint handling, but more to the ideas of pop-art. However his motives are more in line with analyzing the handling of paint as well as the formal composition derived from placement of objects on the surface in a manner that flattens the images as iconic shapes, taking figurative image toward formalist tendencies.

Works Cited

Fineberg, Jonathan. Art Since 1940, Strategies of Being. Second Edition. New Jersey: Prentice Hall. Print. 2000. 
Sayer, Henry M. A World of Art. Seventh Edition. New York: Prentice Hall. Print. 2013.

Further Reading and Viewing

Harris and Zucker. SmArtHistory.org. KhanAcademy. Web. 2014.


Recommended Reading

  • Battcock, G. & Nickas, R., eds. The Art of Performance: A Critical Anthology. New York, 1984.
  • Crow, Thomas. Modern Art in the Common Culture. Yale University Press. 1999.
  • Foster, Hal, ed. The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Post-Modern Culture. Bay Press, WA. 1983.
  •                 The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century. Cambridge, MA, 1996.
  • Greenberg, Clement. Art and Culture. Boston, 1961.
  • Harrison, Charles & Wood, Paul, eds. Art in Theory: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Colchester, Vermont, 1992.
  • Hertz, Richard & Klein, Norman, eds. Twentieth Century Art Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
  • Holt, Nancy. The Writings of Robert Smithson. New York, 1979.
  • Hunter, Sam & Jacobus, John. Modern Art. Thrid edition. Prentice Hall, 1992.
  • Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Post-Modernism. Bloomington, Indiana, 1986.
  • Johnson, Ellen, ed. American Artists on Art: 1940-1980. New York, 1982.
  • Krauss, Rosalind E. Passages in Modern Sculpture. Cambridge, MA, 1997.
  • Schapiro, Meyer. Modern Art: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. New York, 1978.
  • Shapiro, David & Cecile, eds. Abstract Expressionism: A Critical Record. Cambridge, MA, 1990.
  • Steinberg, Leo.  Other Criteria: Confrontations with 20th Century Art. New York, 1972.
  • Stiles, Kristin & Selz, Peter, eds. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Source Book of Artists’ Writings. Berkeley: University of California, 1987.
  • Wagner, Anne. Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology. New York, 1995.
  • Whitney Museum of American Art. Anti-Illusion: Proceedures/Materials.  New York, 1969.
  •                 Blam! The Explosion of Pop, Minimalism and Performance: 1958-64. New York, 1984.
Show php error messages