Artistic Horizons of Europe 1917-2017



Author: Tatjana Koprivica

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While some were working underground and others leaving, Picasso created one of the most important paintings in the history and the European and global art.

In Paris in 1937, a great International Exhibition exhibition dedicated to work, progress and peace was held.

Republican Spain had a clear goal at this exhibition – to call for solidarity and a free Europe and to warn that the conflict in Spain marks the beginning of a major European tragedy.

Even though Picasso had planned to paint an allegoric composition for the Spanish pavilion, after the fascist aviation bombed the Basque town of Guernica on 26 April, he decided to paint Guernica in just a few weeks.

He believed that an artist could not be a mere observer of politics, because a painting was not there to decorate apartments, but “it was an instrument of war used for an attack and as a defense from the enemy”.

Guernica was a decisive engagement of culture in the political fight (1).

The democratic culture responded to reactionary currents with creating a master piece. For Picasso, Guernica was not just the suffering of Guernica, but the beginning of the immense European and global suffering.

He did not want to merely bring the suffering to the attention of the public, but to make the consciousness and conscience of the civilized society face the crime.

During the German occupation of Paris, he replied to German critics who talked about Guernica: “It was not me who did this, but you” (2).

Everything Picasso pointed to in his Guernica soon became reality.

The Second World War assumed proportions of a modern apocalypse.

From 1939 to 1945, European art of the resistance movement had no programs, manifestos, galleries, exhibitions, catalogues, critiques; it simply expressed civic revolt (3).

Between East and West

Even though it seemed that the unprecedented suffering ended on 9 May 1945, new conflicts soon emerged: the Cold War, conflicts in Indo-China, China, Algeria, Korea, liberation wars in Asia and Africa.

The most significant artist in Europe between 1945 and 1950 was Picasso.

He used to say that Russia hated his work, but loved his political affiliation, while the USA loved his work and hated his political affiliation.

He received Stalin’s Peace Prize in 1950, but that same year, he was denied the American visa (4).

For the needs of the World Peace Congress, he made a lithograph poster with a dove on it, which was going to become a universal symbol of peace.

Dove 1949 Pablo Picasso 1881-1973 Bequeathed by Elly Kahnweiler 1991 to form part of the gift of Gustav and Elly Kahnweiler, accessioned 1994

As an engaged artist, he painted in 1951 the Massacre in Korea. Picasso’s work, especially in these years, was very important for the Yugoslavian art (5), which attracted the attention of the European artistic public in 1951 with Petar Lubarda’s exhibition in Belgrade.

This exhibition was a turning point for painting in Yugoslavia (6).

While European institutions were becoming stronger in the fifties of the 20th century, art was looking for new means of expression.

Many artists, especially from the east bloc, financially supported by US institutions, went in these years to shorter of longer study trips to the USA.

In this context, the most important were the activities of the MOMA in New York (7).

While, between the two world wars, a painting was the motive for an idea which had to be developed, after 1945, idea became the motive for a painting which had to be developed (8).

From 1950 until 1960, informalism and optical art were two extremes in European painting. Informality was at the other side of the shape, in that which constitutes its true essence, in the matter.

It united the action painting in the USA (Polock, Gorky, De Kooning, Tobey Rothko), the lyrical abstraction in France (Wols, Mathieu), Bazaine, Michaux) and matter painting (Burri, Tapies, Saura, Feito).

Op-art artists, V. Vasarely, J. Agam, Soto, believed that geometrical shape and forms were ideal in communication among people because of their universal character (9).

As a new form of artistic expression, Allan Karpov suggested in 1959 the happening. Using the ambience, objects, music and body of the artist, happening turned a passive observer into an engaged participant in the creation of art (10).

Although it emerged in England in the early sixties of the 20th century in Richard Hamilton’s work, pop art which creates an expression of the consumer spirit and reclamocracy bloomed in the USA, in the works of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Tom Wesselmann, James Rosenquist, Claes Oldenburg.

With the new realism which emerged in the European art in 1960, Yves Klein, Arman, Heins, Dufrene, Tinguely, Spoerri, César, Rotella, Niki de Saint-Phalle, Christo tried to “use a new processing of reality and a different perception of reality to renew the severed bonds between art and man” (11).

Yves Klein used female models as “living paintbrushes” who, covered in paint, left prints.

In 1960 in Paris, he exhibited an empty gallery which he had painted white the night before.

Jean Tinguely created “rusty hardware and absurd machines”, right at the moment when Europe was engulfed in the fever of buying washing machines, TV sets, fridges. Christo packed objects, buildings and vast settings.

While European artists looked for new ways of expression through informalism, op-art, pop art, new realism, in Spain, engaged art became the symbol of resistance against Franco’s regime and fascism.

The theme was more important that the painting method: political prisoners, apprehensions, rallies, strikes, street fights. Artists created illegal decrees, caricatures, graphics, slogans. Especially prominent were Arroyo and Canogar (12).

Idea and photo reality

The sixties of the 20th century in Europe were characterized by a social and political crisis, the construction of the Berlin Wall (1961), strong student movements and emergence of a new intellectual left.

The suppression of the student movement in 1968, the crackdown of the greatest post-war enthusiasm had significant consequences – apathy, withdrawal, passive resistance, but also emergence of militant terrorist groups in Italy, Germany and France.

“The most beautiful sculpture is a sidewalk stone, a heavy sidewalk stone thrown into a police officer’s face”, said the young artist of this time (13).

In this period, trade in art bloomed, which completely fitted into the system of the capitalist economy: painting and sculpture became goods and market laws applied to them.

Art became means of acquiring profit. Conceptual art was a reaction to such developments. Conceptualism’s starting point was to make art “unacceptable”, so that art would not become goods.

“The purpose of art lies not in the work itself, but in the imagined and projected, in idea, which cannot be an inert object on the market, but can be a machine which produces art” (14).

Conceptualism abolished visual experience and reduced art to the idea – Art as idea as idea (Joseph Kosuth) (15).

Camera: DCS660C
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New forms of expression came in the form of land art, body art, arte povera, performances. Conceptualism started weakening when it accepted everything it had fought against: exhibitions, galleries, luxury publications, snobbish audience and trade.

As a reaction to intellectualism and the tightness of conceptual art, hyperrealism emerged in in 1972 with the exhibition “Documenta 5” in Kassel.

Conceptualism abolished handicraft and technology, hyperrealism found in this its only goal. Hyperrealism relied on the cold, sugar-coated attitude of the world around us.

The symbol of the divided Europe, the Berlin Wall, became a huge art canvass in 1984 when Theirry Noir started painting cartoon characters on it (16).

Other artists joined. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 meant the end of the Cold War.

In two world wars and in the times of restoration of economic and cultural life in Europe after these wars, art was reconsidering itself, looking for new challenges, “reacting” to the changing Europe.

As engaged, left-wing, as a rebellion, as social realism, anti-art, right-wing, fascist and national socialistic. Between East and West, Europe and the USA.

As informalism, op art, pop art, conceptual art, hyperrealism, video art, digital art.

Does the European art of 2017 have the strength which is even close to the strength it had in 1917 or the strength art had in the last century? No. I believe it could.

(The End)

[1] Đ. K. Argan, A. B. Oliva, Moderna umetnost 1770-1970-2000, II, Belgrade 2005, 148.

[2] Id., op. cit., 148-151.

[3] G. C. Argan, Odnos moderne umjetnosti prema političkim ideologijama, Belgrade 1983, 21.

[4] Picasso became a member of the French Communist Party in 1944. From that point on, he was under the FBI surveillance; G. Utley, Pablo Picasso: The Communist Years, Yale University Press, 2000; Picasso: Peace and Freedom, eds. L. Morris and C. Grunenberg, Tate Publishing 2010.

[5] In 1969, Picasso made a poster La Battalla de Neretva for Veljko Bulajić’s movie; L. Merenik, Pikaso: Harizma jugoslovenskog socijalističkog modernizma, in: Umetnost i vlast. Srpsko slikarstvo 1945-1968, Belgrade 2010, 118-120; Veljko Bulajić: Vlakom bez voznog reda u povijest filma, ed. B. Rudež, Zagreb 2015, 208, 326.

[6] O. Perović, Petar Lubarda [1907-1974], Belgrade 2004, 47, 49.

[7] E. Cockroft, Abstract Expressionism, Weapon of the Cold War, in: Pollock and After: The Critical Debate, Harper & Row 1985, 126-133.

[8] L. Trifunović, Enformel, in: Studije, ogledi, kritike, IV, ed. D. Bulatović, Belgrade 1990, 153.

[9] L. Trifunović, Slikarski pravci XX vijeka, 107-109.

[10] Id. op. cit., 113. 

[11] L. Trifunović, op. cit., 116-118.

[12] Id. op. cit., 122. 

[13] L. Trifunović, Slikarski pravci XX veka, 125.

[14] Id., op. cit., 125-131.

[15] J. Kosuth, Art as Idea as Idea, Brussels 1973.

[16] L. Trifunović, Slikarski pravci, 134-135.