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Existentialism in Modern Art

Synopsis

The philosophy of Existentialism was an influential undercurrent in art of the 1940s and 1950s. It aimed to explore the role of sensory perception, particularly vision, in the thought processes. Existentialism stressed the special character of personal, subjective experience and it insisted on the freedom and autonomy of the individual. Jean-Paul Sartre was Existentialism's most prominent advocate in the post-war period, and the bohemian circles in which he moved while in Paris included many artists. In this way, figures such as Alberto Giacometti, Jean Dubuffet, Jean Fautrier and Wols became associated with Existentialist philosophy. It also had some impact in the United States, particularly through the writing of art critic Harold Rosenberg. The philosophy was often poorly understood, even by those who called themselves Existentialists. Nevertheless, it shaped discussion of themes such as trauma, anxiety, and alienation; ideas which were pervasive in post-war art.

Key Ideas

Existentialism first emerged in the late 19th century, in the writing of the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard who reacted against the systematic and rational character of Hegel's philosophy and instead insisted on the distinctiveness of personal experience. In the decades that followed, Existentialism grew into a philosophy that placed stress on individual ethics and on the authentic experience of selfhood, on freedom and choice.
Existentialism's focus on individual experience made it a perfect tool with which to interpret much post-war abstract art. It proved particularly useful to discuss Art Informel, the highly expressive and individualistic abstract art that flourished in Europe after the late 1940s. Some of this work, by painters such as Dubuffet and Wols, addressed the uneasy co-existence of mind and body on which human beings rely, and Existentialism's interest in sensory perception offered a means to negotiate the sometimes difficult divide.
Existentialism never enjoyed the same popularity among American artists that it did among Europeans. But it did enter the discussions of Abstract Expressionists, particularly through Harold Rosenberg's notion of "Action Painting," which understood the painter's creative process as an act of necessary self-assertion, an expression of freedom and authenticity.
Existentialism also contributed to discussions of figurative art in the post-war period, shaping responses to the work of Alberto Giacometti and Francis Bacon in particular. This is symptomatic of the popularization of the philosophy, which came to be widely understood as the intellectual expression of anxiety about the fate of humanity in the atomic age.

Most Important Art

The Card Players (1890-92)
Artist: Paul Cézanne
In "Cézanne's Doubt," an important and influential essay by philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, related tenets of Phenomenology and Existentialism that were brought to bear on painting. Merleau-Ponty argued that Cézanne's painting demonstrated art's interest in subjective perceptions and experiences – indeed the first level of those experiences, before the mind had time to process and reflect upon them. In this sense, Merleau-Ponty suggested, art is opposed to science, which is more interested in analyzing and rationalizing those experiences. Cézanne painted five versions of The Card Players, all towards the end of his life, and each of the pictures might serve as an opening on to themes of Existentialism and Phenomenology, not least because each of Cézanne's players is wholly self-involved, absorbed in his own game.
Oil on canvas - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
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Origins and Ideas

Although the term "Existentialism" was coined by the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel in the 20th century, its roots reach far back; one can even find traces of it in the thought of the Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who argued that mankind was defined by universal qualities. Mankind's essence, in other words, is everywhere the same, and essence precedes his existence in the world, which is contingent on external factors such as history and environment. This theme later played an important role in Existentialism. The philosopher who is often referred to as the "father of Existentialism" is Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), who, like Kant, maintained the importance of the individual, and his or her duty to determine the meaning of life.

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Jean-Paul Sartre and Post-War Paris

Jean-Paul Sartre is the philosopher most popularly associated with Existentialism, and he was crucial in disseminating the tenets of the philosophy in post-war Paris. Sartre's activity as a playwright, novelist and literary critic gave his ideas extraordinary reach; his novel Nausea (1938) was particularly important in this regard. Sartre even occasionally wrote essays about artists' work, such as Giacometti, which aided in translating philosophy into the terms of visual art. Sartre described his own approach to the philosophy as Atheistic Existentialism, stating, "If man, as the existentialist conceives him, is indefinable, it is because at first he is nothing. Only afterward will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will be." Sartre argued that mankind is by nature autonomous and alone and is not bound to any ethereal being, or God, but only by the laws he defines for himself.

Phenomenology and Art

Existentialism was closely related to the philosophy of Phenomenology, a theory of knowledge that had a keen interest in the problems of perception. Sartre was important in bringing the two into association, as he was heavily influenced by the ideas of Edmund Husserl, the founder of Phenomenology. But the writer who had the most to bring to bear on Phenomenology in the visual arts was Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1907-61). His 1945 essay, "Cézanne's Doubt," examined Paul Cézanne's investigations into the phenomena of visual perception. Merleau-Ponty argued that through his paintings, Cézanne discovered that "the lived perspective, that which we actually perceive, is not a geometric or photographic one." In other words, art is not an exact science but a means of capturing the complexities of what the eye observes. Merleau-Ponty's ideas, and in particular his book The Phenomenology of Perception (1945), later exerted an important influence on Minimalism.

Figuration and New Images of Man

Existentialism provided abstract painters with a terminology that enabled them to assert the importance of their very personal expressions. But it also served the needs of figurative painters. Some, such as Giacometti, were influenced by Existentialist ideas about the perception of objects in space; as the philosophy touched on how human beings interact, this provided a template for thinking about how the painter might relate to the portrait sitter, something that preoccupied Giacometti a great deal in the post-war years. Existentialism also addressed concerns about the fate and dignity of humanity, which were pervasive in culture in this period. Albert Camus, in his 1953 book The Rebel, wrote of modern man, "In upholding beauty, we prepare the way for the day of regeneration when civilization will give first place... to this living virtue on which is founded the common dignity of man." The "common dignity" to which Camus refers became a focal concern for many artists, who were concerned with how this dignity might be maintained in the face of despair, neurosis, even psychosis.

Existentialism was also a significant influence on the most noted exhibition of figurative art in the 1950s, "New Images of Man," which was staged at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1959. The exhibition examined how artists from many nations - Giacometti, Franics Bacon and Willem de Kooning, for example - all gave expression to mankind's dilemmas. In the exhibition catalog, curator Paul Tillich wrote, "in abstract or non-objective painting and sculpture, the figure disappears completely ... [because man] is losing his humanity and becoming a thing amongst the things he produces." MoMA's "New Images" show was, in essence, a protest against this trend.

Action Painting

Art critic Harold Rosenberg's understanding of Abstract Expressionist painting was powerfully shaped by Existentialism. The philosophy played an important role in framing Rosenberg's notion of "Action Painting." When a painter like Willem de Kooning approached the canvas, Rosenberg viewed this as a personal encounter, wherein the process of painting itself revealed the personality of the artist, and all the drama and emotion that comes with it. Action Painting was, for Rosenberg, an existential exercise, a brutally honest form of self-expression.

Original content written by Justin Wolf

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

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Useful Resources on Existentialism in Modern Art

Books
More
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
general texts
Basic Writings of Existentialism

Existentialism And Human Emotions

Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre

key existentialist essays/plays
"No Exit" (1944)

By Jean-Paul Sarte

"Cézanne's Doubt" (1945)

By Maurice Merleau-Ponty

"Waiting for Godot" (1949)

By Samuel Beckett

Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre was a twentieth-century French philosopher, public intellectual, playwright, activist, literary critic and novelist. His name has become synonymous with Existentialism, the modern philosophy he popularized throughout his career. Sartre's writings, while vast, are characterized by his intense focus on matters dealing with human behavior, the Ego and "the Other." In one of his most celebrated works, the play No Exit, one of Sartre's characters boasts the famous line, "Hell is other people."
Jean-Paul Sartre
Alberto Giacometti
Alberto Giacometti
Alberto Giacometti
The Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti created semi-abstract sculptures that took up themes of violence, sex, and Surrealism. His famous later work is characterized by towering, elongated figures in bronze.
ArtStory: Alberto Giacometti
Jean Dubuffet
Jean Dubuffet
Jean Dubuffet
Jean Dubuffet was a French painter and sculptor, and arguably one of the most famous French artists of the mid-to-late-twentieth century. Dubuffet's paintings employed the impasto technique, in which oil paints were thickened by materials such as sand, tar and straw. He coined the term "Art Brut," otherwise known as "raw art."
ArtStory: Jean Dubuffet
Jean Fautrier
Jean Fautrier
Jean Fautrier
Jean Fautrier, born in 1898, was a French painter and sculptor. He was one of the most important practitioners of Tachisme, the European equivalent to Abstract Expressionism.
Jean Fautrier
Wols
Wols
Wols
Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze, aka Wols, was a twentieth-century German painter and photographer, associated with the Tachisme movement, the European counterpart to Abstract Expressionism. Working in France for most of his career, Wols became posthumously well known for his expressive and wholly abstract use of stains and color dabs on his canvases.
Wols
Harold Rosenberg
Harold Rosenberg
Harold Rosenberg
Harold Rosenberg was a critic, art historian, and curator who published important works on modern art and culture. He was a leading exponent of Abstract Expressionism, and coined the term "Action Painting."
ArtStory: Harold Rosenberg
Soren Kierkegaard
Soren Kierkegaard
Soren Kierkegaard
Soren Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher and theologian during the mid-nineteenth century. His most famous work, Either/Or, examined the aesthetics and ethics of human existence through a series of life views espoused by fictional characters. Because of his fascination with the human plight of existence, some consider Kierkegaard to be the father of existentialism.
Soren Kierkegaard
Art Informel
Art Informel
Art Informel
Art Informel, otherwise known as Tachisme or lyrical abstraction, was the European equivalent of Abstract Expressionism during the 1940s and '50s. Artists associated with the movement included Jean Dubuffet, Hans Hartung and Alberto Burri. Like the American Action painters, the Tachists emphasized the importance of spontaneity and emotion.
Art Informel
Action Painting
Action Painting
Action Painting
Action Painting was a term coined by art critic Harold Rosenberg to refer to the gestural mode of Abstract Expressionism, characterized by drips, flung paint, and rapid, spontaneous strokes. In this view the painting is a record of the artist's activities over time.
ArtStory: Action Painting
Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon was an Irish-born, English painter and one of the twentieth century's most celebrated and controversial existentialist artists. Bacon favored dark subject matter, often painting slightly abstracted, biomorphic figures, with bodies contorted or in the throes of madness. Painterly themes of Bacon's include the crucifixion, isolation and the mind's fragility. Bacon was also one of the few English artists of any prominence in modern and contemporary circles during the better part of the twentieth century.
ArtStory: Francis Bacon
Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher and one of the major figures during the eighteenth-century Enlightenment period of philosophical thinking. Kant's metaphysical writings on judgment, knowledge and doubt led to the development of German idealism, and influenced the likes of Georg Hegel and Arthur Schopenhauer.
Immanuel Kant
Phenomenology
Phenomenology
Phenomenology
Phenomenology is a philosophical movement that was largely co-opted by the mid-century existentialists, such as Heidegger, Sarte and Merleau-Ponty, who were attracted to its focus on the conscious mind and the phenomena of everyday life. In its most basic form, Phenomenology is the objective study of otherwise subjective and abstract concepts, or "phenomena," such as human judgment, emotion, and the existence of being.
Phenomenology
Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Maurice Merleau-Ponty was a twentieth-century French phenomenological philosopher. Highly influenced by the writings and theories and Marx, Heidegger and Edmund Husserl, Merleau-Ponty examined the structures of human consciousness, and how things such as art, literature and the sciences affect these structures. Essentially an existentialist, Merleau-Ponty believed the human body, consciousness and the world around us were all intertwined entities.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Paul Cézanne
Paul Cézanne
Paul Cézanne
Paul Cézanne was an influential French Post-Impressionist painter whose depictions of the natural world, based on internal geometric planes, paved the way for Cubism and later modern art movements.
ArtStory: Paul Cézanne
Minimalism
Minimalism
Minimalism
Minimalism emerged as a movement in New York in the 1960s, its leading figures creating objects which blurred the boundaries between painting and sculpture, and were characterized by unitary, geometric forms and industrial materials. Emphasizing cool anonymity over the passionate expression of the previous generation of painters, the Minimalists attempted to avoid metaphorical associations, symbolism, and suggestions of spiritual transcendence.
ArtStory: Minimalism
Albert Camus
Albert Camus
Albert Camus
Albert Camus was a twentieth-century Algerian-French philosopher, journalist and Nobel Prize-winning author, best known for his notable link with the Existentialist movement, in spite of his own reluctance at the association. Camus's greatest works, which paved the way for literary trends in absurdism, are The Plague, The Stranger, and The Myth of Sisyphus, all widely hailed as some of the modern era's greatest literary contributions.
Albert Camus
Museum of Modern Art
Museum of Modern Art
Museum of Modern Art
The Museum has become the home for some of the greatest works of avant-garde painting, sculpture, film and multi-media art in the world. While MoMA remains true to its roots as a place where new styles of art can circulate, its permanent collection is widely considered the most impressive and diverse assortment of Modern art to ever exist, ranging from late-nineteenth-century van Goghs, Monets and Gauguins to works produced in the present day.
ArtStory: Museum of Modern Art
Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning, a Dutch immigrant to New York, was one of the foremost Abstract Expressionist painters. His abstract compositions drew on Surrealist and figurative traditions, and typified the expressionistic 'gestural' style of the New York School.
ArtStory: Willem de Kooning
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
ArtStory: Abstract Expressionism