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Existentialism in Modern Art


The philosophy of Existentialism was an influential undercurrent in art that 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

Existentialism in Modern Art Famous Art

The Card Players (1890-92)

Artist: Paul Cézanne
Philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty argued in "Cézanne's Doubt," an important and influential essay, 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.
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Existentialism in Modern Art Artworks in Focus:

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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.

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, Francis 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.

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Existentialism in Modern Art Overview Continues

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.

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Useful Resources on Existentialism in Modern Art



The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of 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 Recomended resource

More Interesting Books about Existentialism in Modern Art

key existentialist essays/plays

"Cézanne's Doubt" (1945)

By Maurice Merleau-Ponty

"Waiting for Godot" (1949) Recomended resource

By Samuel Beckett

articles about existentialism

"On Language: Existential" Recomended resource

By William Safire
The New York Times
April 8, 2007

"Slapstick Existentialism on Broadway"

By Joan Marcus
More Intelligent Life
June 30, 2009

More Interesting Resources about Existentialism in Modern Art
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