The Important Artists and Works of Existentialism in Modern Art
The Card Players
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.
Oil on canvas - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The Blue Phantom
The wild and aggressive painting of the Paris-based German artist Wols is characteristic of the European abstract movement Art Informel. Indeed, when Wols arrived at the radically abstract style of his post-war work, many critics recognized it as new and significant. The critic Michel Tapie, who coined the term Informel, said Wols was "the catalyst of a lyrical, explosive, anti-geometrical and unformal non-figuration." The painter Georges Matthieu remarked that "After Wols, everything has to be done anew." And Jean-Paul Sartre claimed Wols for Existentialism, writing that his work was a visualization of our "universal horror of being-in-the-world," our fascination with the "otherness" of worldly phenomena. The Blue Phantom is a key example of the artist's emotional relationship and response to the canvas, and it exemplifies Existentialism's stress on subjective experience. Wols' life might also be taken as an emblem of the ethic of individual freedom that was also championed by Existentialists, since he led a wild life, fast and loose, with little regard for playing by the rules.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
Study After Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X
Many art historians and theorists consider Francis Bacon the quintessential Existentialist artist, and his 1953 Study suggests why. It is based on Diego Velázquez's 1650 portrait of Pope Innocent X, but the removal of the head, the addition of the cage-like bars, and the ways Bacon's figure sits behind a kind of screen of vertical brushstrokes all evoke the mood and themes of the post-war philosophy. The figure also seems on the verge of disappearance, as if his corporeal self is literally evaporating. Existentialism cautioned that the battle to retain our sense of self was a constant one, heroic and tragic, and it was urgently necessary if we were not to become little different than the objects that surround us.
Oil on canvas - Des Moines Art Center, Iowa
Walking Man I
Giacometti is the post-war artist who appears to have made the most serious attempt to come to terms with the ideas of Existentialism. He was particularly preoccupied with problems of perception, and how the phenomenon of spatial distance might be registered. These problems go to the heart of Existentialism since they not only touch on our faculties of perception and thought, but also speak to how we relate to one another as isolated human beings separated by physical space. But Giacometti's art also captured the melancholic tone of Existentialism: Walking Man I shows a fragile subject, isolated and exposed to the elements, which consequently have begun to ravage his very being. The man is also emaciated, suggesting that he is slowly withering away, yet he still moves forward, presumably in search of something. As movement is the focal point of Walking Man, the artist adds for his subject the obstacle of loaded feet, almost fused to the ground he treads. Giacometti's Walking Man I is a portrait of man in the throes of an existential crisis.
Bronze - Private Collection